A UCSB marine biologist and his colleague have discovered a new species of deep-sea black coral off the coast of Southern California.

While the coral was first observed six years ago, Milton Love, a researcher in the Dept. of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, and UCSB alum Mary Yoklavich, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries researcher, only recently determined the coral is a new species after having a sample of it analyzed by a specialist. The discovery was publicized in a Feb. 8 issue of Zootaxa.

The Christmas Tree Coral — as Love and Yoklavich named the species — has a large branchlike structure and bright red, pink and white colors. It can be found along the entire coast of Southern California, including the area between the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara coastline. Love said the coral grows in rocky habitats between the depths of 300 and 750 feet. It is one of the largest organisms at its depth, sometimes growing up to 7 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

The hard structure of coral, which is formed by calcium carbonate secretions deposited from colonies of individual polyp organisms, is a natural habitat for many types of sea life, Love said. He said his marine group discovered the Christmas Tree Coral approximately six years ago while studying fish populations in the area.

“We had been examining the area off the coast here and had seen these corals for the past six years,” Love said. “Finally, in 2002, we really started to take notice of the coral, but it was not until recently that we took a sample of the coral in to a specialist, who informed us that it was a new type of coral.”

Love said he and his research team were able to more closely examine the coral with the aid of a two-person submarine, named Delta, which can drop to depths of 1,200 feet and is typically used for researching fish populations around oil rigs.

Yoklavich said a closer examination of the coral showed that its physical structure was unique, thereby classifying it as a new species.

“The polyp structure under the microscope can be seen to have subtle differences from other black corals,” Yoklavich said. “So far, this is the only data we have that separates it from other corals. In regards to its biotic characteristics, labs are just starting tests to see what else is unique about the Christmas Tree Coral.”

Love said he and Yoklavich decided to give the coral its festive name after divers repeatedly remarked that the species looked like a certain holiday plant.

“Whenever we dove off the coast of Southern California, our divers would come up after studying fish populations and report, upon seeing the unfamiliar coral, that they had seen yet another Christmas tree,” Love said. “This is where the formal name we chose… originated.”

Love said the discovery is significant, as the health of the coral can serve as an indicator of environmental conditions off the Southern California coast.

“The coral is quite sensitive to pollution and fishing industry trawling,” he said. “The fact that there are still habitats of coral in good shape all along the coast means that environmental conditions are still suitable. It is necessary that it stay this way.”

Video showing footage of the coral can be seen at http://www.id.ucsb.edu/lovelab/.