University of Malta scientists have discovered an area of coral mounds off Marsascala that is 10 times the size of Comino.

Many of the organisms living on these mounds are endangered and protected by international law, but unfortunately, some mounds have already been destroyed by anchors or fishing trawlers.  

On Tuesday, Scientists from the Department of Geosciences called on the authorities to urgently declare the seafloor hosting these mounds as a Marine Special Area of Conservation.

Video: University of Malta

In a statement, the scientists said they had found more than 1,500 enigmatic mounds.

The density of the rocky outcrops with a mounded shape was "unparalleled and definitely not what we would have expected in this part of the Mediterranean Sea," lead scientist Aaron Micallef said.

"Most similar structures we know of are from tropical waters and are quite different from the ones we found offshore Malta."

These mounds, which are on average 20m wide and can reach a height of several metres, occur in dense clusters at seafloor depths ranging between 60 and 120m. The origin of these mounds remains unclear, although they were possibly formed by either seepage of groundwater or wave action when sea level was lower in the past.

“The most fascinating aspect of these mounds is that by rising above the sediment seafloor, they provide a base for a wide range of organisms, many of them endangered and protected by international law," Prof Micallef added.

The surfaces of the mounds, which consist of fossilised algae and tubeworms, provide a home to black corals, gorgonians, colourful sea slugs and sea urchins. Or Bialik, a Marie Curie Fellow and lead author of the study said the delicate organisms grow slowly over hundreds and even thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the scientists also identified extensive trawl marks, formed by dragged anchors or bottom fishing activities, located in the same area as these mounds. In several locations, it appears that trawling activities have destroyed or damaged mounds and their fragile ecosystems.

This study, which was funded by Marie Curie Actions, also involved scientists from theUniversity of Milano Bicocca (Italy) and the National Oceanography Centre (UK).

3D image (seafloor depth) of two mounds. Photo: University of Malta3D image (seafloor depth) of two mounds. Photo: University of Malta

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