AP Photo/University of Alaska Fairbanks, Brenda Konar Rhodoliths are displayed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this month.
AP Photo/University of Alaska Fa
FAIRBANKS (AP) The discovery of Alaska's newest underwater habitat and possibly a new marine species began with a runaway sieve.
University of Alaska Fairbanks Assistant Professor Katrin Iken was sorting samples of bacteria and algae with the sieve on a boat on Prince William Sound in the midst of a June trip to survey small marine life in the area.
She leaned over the side of the vessel to rinse off the $75 piece of equipment. It slipped out of her hand and sank in 60 feet of water near the shore of Knight Island, on the western edge of the sound.
''Rule number one, don't lean overboard to do anything, and I didn't obey that rule,'' Iken said. ''You're out there in the middle of nowhere, you cannot afford losing a tool that you use for your sampling.''
So Iken and UAF Assistant Professor Brenda Konar, the leaders of the five-person expedition, threw on their scuba gear to recover the sieve, which Iken found right next to the boat's anchor line. Then they noticed something curious around them: A brightly colored latticework of hard, branched objects stretching across the seafloor.
''All I saw were little pink jacks all over the floor, and all I could think was, 'Oh my god, there's a rhodolith bed here,''' Konar said.
The two professors had stumbled into Alaska's first known bed of rhodoliths, a form of coralline red algae that have never been seen on this coast north of British Columbia.
A bed of Rhodoliths sits at the bottom of Prince Williams Sound, Alaska in this July 2004 in Prince Williams Sound, Alaska. University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Brenda Konar and Katrin the sound. Rhodoliths are a form of coralline red algae that have never been seen on this coast north of British Columbia. Like coral, rhodoliths form hard external structures by depositing calcium carbonate within their cell walls. But unlike corals, they aren't attached to anything: They drift like underwater tumbleweeds until they grow heavy enough to settle and form beds.
AP Photo/University of Alaska Fa
Like coral, rhodoliths form hard external structures by depositing calcium carbonate within their cell walls. But unlike corals, they aren't attached to anything: They drift like underwater tumbleweeds until they grow heavy enough to settle and form beds, in this case a bed at least 200 feet in diameter. The ones the professors found didn't get much bigger than ping pong balls.
Konar had seen rhodoliths before while diving in Baja California, and immediately recognized their significance. The two collected samples and headed back down to retrieve more, which were sent to Rafael Riosmena-Rodriguez, a marine taxonomist in La Paz, Mexico. Riosmena-Rodriguez has identified two species of rhodoliths from the bed, one of which may be a new species.
The other species, Phymatolithon calcareum, is widespread in the North Atlantic. But it may have its roots in Alaska, based on the fact that three different sexual variants of it male, female, and asexual were all found in the bed, the first time that's happened.
''That's sort of suggesting that this might be one of the origins of this particular species,'' said Konar.
Rhodoliths aren't just an algae, noted the scientists, but a habitat all their own. The small creatures settle in sandy, relatively lifeless areas and turn them into refuges for other sea life, which hide in their branches or settle on the hard substrate they form.
''They basically create a habitat, and from other places we know that there are a lot of important species, fish or fisheries species like scallops and crabs, that oftentimes live associated with rhodolith beds,'' Iken said.
Rhodoliths are also noteworthy for their longevity. The professors think the ones they found are probably over a century old.
Konar, Iken, and Riosmena-Rodriguez are seeking funding to do further research on the bed and to go in search of other sites in Prince William Sound and perhaps beyond. They're especially curious to see what other species of marine life may be making the unique beds their home.
In some areas of the world, rhodolith beds are protected because of their value as a marine habitat. In others, they're ground up for fertilizer. Iken and Konar said the discovery and further research could result in greater protection being afforded Alaska's rhodolith population.
Konar considers the rho-doliths the most significant discovery of her 15 years of ocean research.
''This is the first time I found something that is really just new,'' she said. ''You often find things that are kind of rare, or unusual, but 'new' is kind of cool.''
Iken, another 15-year ocean sciences veteran, said she considers it a career highlight even if she's a bit embarrassed about how it came about.
''All good discoveries happen by accident, and this is one of them,'' she said.
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