Over 100 animal species found in 2,200-year-old shipwreck

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Over 2,200 years ago, a battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians took place at sea off northwestern Sicily. Rome was victorious, defeating the other fleet and ending the First Punic War.

While so much was destroyed at the time, scientists recently discovered a wreck teeming with underwater life. Researchers have found at least 114 animal species living on the ram of a Carthaginian ship that was sunk in the battle.

A ram is a beak-shaped striking weapon mounted on the bow of a combat ship and designed to damage an enemy ship. It was usually sunk into the hull of another ship in order to damage or sink it.

The discovery of the ram is an important archaeological discovery. But finding it as a host for so much wildlife also provides insight to scientists who are learning how marine animals colonize empty sites and slowly create diverse and wealthy communities.

“Wrecks are often studied to track colonization by marine organisms, but few studies have focused on ships that sank more than a century ago,” said latest author Sandra Ricci, senior researcher at the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro (ICR) of Rome, in a statement.

“Here, we are studying for the first time the colonization of a wreck over a period of more than 2000 years. We show that the ram ended up harboring a community very similar to the surrounding habitat, due to the “ecological connectivity” – the free movement of species – between it and its surroundings. ”

In search of life


Ship’s ram on the seabed.

K. Egorov / Società per la Documentazione dei Siti Sommersi â ???? Global underwater explorers


The ram was recovered in 2017, located between 75 and 90 meters (about 250-300 feet) deep. It is bronze and hollow, which allows it to accumulate sea creatures inside and out.

Several years later, the ram was cleaned and restored by ICR researchers. All marine animals found inside and outside the ram were collected, along with blocks of sediment and hardened material from the same area.

Scientists worked to compare the species found in and around the ram with those found in similar Mediterranean habitats. They reconstructed how it was likely colonized by dispersing larvae from these habitats.

They found a complex community with 114 species of living invertebrates, including 58 species of molluscs, 33 species of gastropods, 25 species of bivalves, 33 species of polychaete worms and 23 species of bryozoa.

“We deduce that the main ‘builders’ of this community are organisms such as polychaetes, bryozoans and some species of bivalves. Their tubes, valves and colonies attach directly to the surface of the wreck, ”said co-author Edoardo Casoli of Sapienza University in Rome.

“Other species, notably the bryozoans, play the role of ‘binders’: their colonies form bridges between the calcareous structures produced by the builders. Then there are the “inhabitants”, who are not attached but move freely between the cavities of the superstructure. What we don’t know exactly yet is the order in which these organisms colonize the wrecks.

The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

“Younger wrecks generally harbor a community that is less diverse than their surroundings, with mostly long-instar species that can disperse far,” said corresponding author Maria Flavia Gravina of the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

“By comparison, our ram is much more representative of the natural habitat: it sheltered a diverse community, including species with long and short larval stages, with sexual and asexual reproduction, and with sessile and mobile adults, which live in colonies. or alone. We have thus shown that very old wrecks like our ram can constitute a new type of sampling tool for scientists, which effectively act as an “ecological memory” of colonization.


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