Morphological and molecular characterizationof a new species of black coral from Elvers Bank, north-western Gulf of Mexico (Cnidaria:Anthozoa: Hexacorallia: Antipatharia:Aphanipathidae: Distichopathes)
The continental shelf edge of the NW Gulf of Mexico supports dozens of reefs and banks, including the West and East Flower Garden Banks (FGB) and Stetson Bank that comprise the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS). Discovered by fishermen in the early 1900s, the FGBs are named after the colourful corals, sponges and algae that dominate the region. The reefs and banks are the surface expression of underlying salt domes and provide important habitat for mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCE) and deep coral communities to 300 m depth. Since 2001, FGBNMS research teams have utilized remotely operated vehicles (e.g. ‘Phantom S2’, ‘Mohawk’, ‘Yogi’) to survey and characterize benthic habitats of this region. In 2016, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement proposed the expansion of the current sanctuary boundaries to incorporate an additional 15 reefs and banks, including Elvers Bank. Antipatharians (black corals) were collected within the proposed expansion sites and analysed using morphological and molecular methods. A new species, Distichopathes hickersonae, collected at 172 m depth on Elvers Bank, is described within the family Aphanipathidae. This brings the total number of black coral species in and around the sanctuary to 14.