The Mediterranean red coral, Corallium rubrum, is one of the most precious corals worldwide. Below 50 m depth, C. rubrum populations are generally characterised by large and sparse colonies, whereas shallow populations (above 50 m depth) show high densities of small colonies. We show here instead that populations dwelling between 80 and 170 m depth exhibited a continuous range of population density (from 2 to 75 colonies per 0.25 m2), with less than 1% of variance explained by water depth. An inverse relationship between maximum population density and mean colony height was found, suggesting that self-thinning processes may shape population structure. Moreover, demographically young populations composed of small and dense colonies dominated along rocky vertical walls, whereas mature populations characterised by large and sparsely distributed colonies were found only in horizontal beds not covered by sediment. We hypothesise that, in the long term, shallow protected populations should resemble to present deep populations, with sparsely distributed large colonies. Since the density of red coral colonies can decay as a result of self-thinning mechanisms, we advise that future protection strategies should be based also on a measure of red coral spatial coverage instead of population density.
Octocorallia (Soft Corals)
Italy - Mediterranean
Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV)