Broad Reef Ecosystem Discovered in the Amazon

Giant sponges, corals, spiny lobsters and fish abound at a newly discovered reef ecosystem at the mouth of the Amazon River.

A reef ecosystem unlike any seen before has just been discovered at the mouth of the Amazon River.

Wedged between the French Guiana-Brazil border and the Maranhão State in Brazil, the reef lies underneath a plume of river water, helping to explain how it went undetected for so long, suggests a new study, which is published in the journal Science Advances.

For over 60 years, however, scientists have suspected that reefs might be in the region.

Photos: Life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Senior author Fabiano Thompson told Discovery News, "There were some studies back in the 1950s that suggested the presence of reefs, but none pinpointed the reef bodies, dimensions, locations, and compositions."

Thompson is an oceanographer and professor of marine biology at the Institute of Biology and the SAGE-COPPE of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He, lead author Rodrigo Moura, and their team explored the poorly known region during three oceanographic cruises resulting from a U.S./Brazil collaboration.

Marine life found at the reef include enormous sponges, multiple types of algae, corals and related animals, hydroids (small predators related to jellyfish), spiny lobsters, at least 73 different species of fish, and other organisms. Much of the reef was made up of rhodolith beds. Rhodoliths are a type of marine algae that resemble coral.

Coral Discovery In Australia Rivals Great Barrier Reef

The scientists said that the features of the newly identified reef ecosystem deviate from those of other reef habitats classified to date. Light is very low to non-existent throughout the reef, resulting in conditions similar to those of "shadow zones." Extremely low levels of oxygen characterize such zones, which are typically hundreds to thousands of feet under the water's surface.

Another unusual feature of the reef is its location within murky, sediment-rich water. Usually reefs develop in transparent, low nutrient waters, Thompson said. In this case, however, the highly turbid Amazon -- one of the world's largest rivers -- sheds up to 333,000 nutrients per second as it flows.

Water sampling at the site also yielded an incredible number of different microbes, revealing that single-celled organisms play a central role in the reef ecosystem, which Thompson said he and his colleagues "consider to be a new biome." "Biome" refers to a community of plants and animals that occupy a distinct region. The scientists suspect that the sponges, corals and other creatures at the site could rely upon the microbes for food.

The reef and its unusual collection of marine life are already under threat. First, there are problems associated with climate change and other man-made stressors.

In another paper published in the same journal, lead author Willem Renema from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center and colleagues studied why many reefs the world over are faring so poorly. They focused on a particular type of common coral, staghorn.

Renema and his team found that staghorn and likely other types of coral reefs are now victims of their own past successes.

He explained that, "The cost of being able to become dominant by growing fast and reproducing by fragmentation is that they have a less dense skeleton and are thus more sensitive to bleaching, pollution, mass predator outbreaks and more."

Photos: LEGO-Like Ocean Reef Shelters Sea Life

The newly discovered Amazon River reef is under yet another big threat. Up to 125 portions of the river substrate were acquired by the petroleum industry for exploratory drilling in 2013. These areas will soon be producing oil in very close proximity to the newly discovered reef.

As a result, the scientists call for further studies of the area in order to properly map its marine life diversity. The overall region encompassing the reef is quite large, extending over 5592 square miles.

"We sampled only 10–20 percent of it," Thompson said.

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Once the region is properly analyzed and mapped, the researchers call for the creation of marine protected areas in places like the reef.

Researchers excavating the newly discovered Amazon reef.

A pair of Common reef cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus) hovers above a patch of hard coral located on the Far Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. With the ocean warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, coupled with land runoff, marine pollution and coastal development -- life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef is threatened from all sides and may be placed on the "in danger" designation for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Can Australia meet the challenge to do a better job of protection by 2014? Here's some photos of what's at risk.

Clownfish protect their eggs hidden in a sea anemone on the Great Barrier Reef.

The most-loved Heart Reef among the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef is part of the protected off-limits areas to SCUBA divers and snorklers.

Three sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef.

A flying gurnard (Dactyloptena orientalis), spreads out large pectorals to scare away enemies on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

A ribbon eel in the Great Barrier Reef.

The poisonous blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) stalks prey among the coral.

The size isn't intimidating, but the deadly poison is; divers wear gloves to hold the blue-ringed octopus.

A black-blotched moray eel at home in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Christmas tree tube worms on the Great Barrier Reef.

The polyps on this stalk of Acropora echinata, a type of Staghorn coral, show vividly colored tips.

Many reefs around the world are threatened by bleaching, as sea temperatures become too warm and stress the corals. The high temperatures kill the colorful polyps, and leave a reef cemetery of coral skeletons.

Staghorn Coral release eggs and sperm in a mass spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef.

The head of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus), near Ningaloo Reef in West Australia - Indian Ocean. Whale sharks feed on the eggs and sperm released from coral during massive spawning events a few days after the full moon between October and December.

What goes in must come out. A sea cucumber (Thelnota ananas) leaves a trail of waste as it processes its food.

An olive sea snake explores Alcyonarian coral.

The head of an Ocellated Epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum), in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Sea level rise poses a real threat to many parts of Australia. Already increased coastal erosion as a result of sea level rise is evident, as here where trees have been undercut and toppled by erosion on Green Island off Cairns in Queensland, Australia.

A rusting anchor chain rests amid the skeletons of pieces of hard coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Marine pollution comes in many different forms, but always from human hands. Greater protection and awareness of human impact on the reef is critical.