Diversity, distribution and spatial structure of the cold-water coral fauna of the Azores (NE Atlantic)
Abstract. Cold-water corals are widely considered as important structural components of benthic habitats, potentially enhancing local abundance in a variety of fish and invertebrate species. Yet, current knowledge of the taxonomic diversity and distribution patterns of these vulnerable, slow-growing organisms is scarce and fragmented, limiting the effectiveness of spatial management and conservation measures. We have conducted an exhaustive compilation of records of alcyonaceans, antipatharians, scleractinians and stylasterids available through present day to assess the diversity, distribution and spatial structure of coral assemblages in the Azores exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The resulting database comprises 2501 entries concerning historical oceanographic expeditions and other published sources, as well as unpublished data from bottom longline by-catch. Our taxonomic inventory appears to be fairly complete for the explored habitats, accounting for 164 species (79 alcyonaceans, 58 scleractinians, 18 antipatharians and 9 stylasterids), nine of which were documented for the first time. The Azores EEZ harbours a mixed coral fauna with several zoogeographic origins, showing the closest affinity with the Lusitanian–Mediterranean region. Very few apparent endemics were found (14%), and only in part supported by consistent sampling. Coral diversity is particularly high between 300 and 900 m depths, in areas recognized as traditional fishing grounds or exploitable fish habitat within the 100-mile limit of the EEZ. The composition of coral assemblages shows significant geographical structure among longitudinal sections of the study area at comparable depths (100–1500 m). There is no evidence of a possible role of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge or latitudinal effects underlying this pattern, which suggests that it may instead reflect assemblage variability among features. Stronger changes in species composition were found along the bathymetric gradient. Notwithstanding the mix of partially overlapping steno- and eurybathic species that characterize the vertical distribution of corals, there is a distinct transition from shallow (100–600 m) to intermediate (600–1000 m) depths. The analysis presented here constitutes a valuable contribution for efficient conservation policies of coral-associated vulnerable marine ecosystems and their sustainable use as fishing areas.