Map shows what lies beneath the sea off Norfolk and Suffolk

Scientists who delved into the depths of the North Sea have discovered fascinating facts about what lies beneath.

From colonies of the lethal mantis shrimp – a creature so powerful it can deliver a blow the equivalent to the force of a bullet, to shipwrecks dating back to the early 19th Century, the results of the East Coast Regional Environmental Characterisation (REC) make fascinating reading.

The comprehensive survey was commissioned in an attempt to better understand the habitats and archaeological features lying on the seabed off East Anglia - at a time when modern maritime industries are expanding.

It took three years to complete the survey and the results have now been published by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) in Lowestoft.

A consortium of scientists, led by Cefas, used state of the art techniques deployed from research vessel Cefas Endeavour to study a 3,300 km2 site stretching from the tail end of the north Norfolk coast to Walberswick in Suffolk. After combining their finds with existing data, the researchers produced a series of maps detailing everything from tidal patterns and water temperature to the shape and biodiversity of our waters.

As well as finding important Palaeolithic artefacts, including hand axes, cores and flakes; peat and wood fragments that indicate human habitation during the Mesolithic (8500 BC to 4000 BC) period; the wreck of the HMS Exmoor which caught fire and sank, south of Great Yarmouth, on 25 February 1941; and scattered remnants of second world war aircraft, the team encountered some unusual species of animal.

The discovery of the rare mantis shrimp (Rissoides desmaresti) sets a new scientific record – with experts previously believing the crustacean to live only on the south and Welsh coasts of the UK.

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Twenty-two individual shrimps were found at five different sites in the north and the south, but were only found in offshore areas at water depths of between 32 and 48 metres.

'I am not sure the mantis shrimp surprised the researchers, but they were very excited to discover it in the East Coast REC area because these findings are the most northern sampling of this species off the east coast of the UK,' said Cefas spokesman Anne McClarnon.

'As a southern species, the new recordings in the East Coast REC areas may be the result of recent colonisation caused by rising average sea temperatures although it may be that this species has been under recorded because it normally burrows into the seabed.'

Catching these shrimp can be a painful experience, thanks to a single serrated 'digit' similar to a preying mantis and a spiney telson (the 'tail' segment) which they use to repeatedly stab those unfortunate to cross their path.

As well as studying the less friendly creatures living in the North Sea home, researchers noted grey seals, minke whales and the harbour porpoise are amongst the most common mammals calling the site home. They also characterised environmentally important features such as sub-tidal reefs, gravel deposits, bedrock outcrops thought to be transported by glaciers, and shifting sandbanks.

Dr Si�n Limpenny, REC project manager, said: 'There is increasing demand on marine space and resources, due to the expansion of maritime industries and because of newer developments such as wind farms.

'The east coast region is also likely to be the focus for the increasing demand for marine aggregates in the future, to support large-scale infrastructure projects and coastal defence programmes.'

'That's why these maps are so helpful. They underpin statutory marine plans, required under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which help decision-makers to ensure the sustainable management of offshore resources now and into the future.

'For instance, sensitive habitats might be safeguarded, whilst other areas may be identified as commercially important fishing grounds or deemed to be ideal for marine construction or for energy supply.

'A wide range of commercial operators and developers, who need to plan their own specific activities, could also find the maps essential tools to support their investment decisions.'

• To read the full report log onto http://www.cefas.defra.gov.uk/alsf/projects/natural-seabed-resources/rec-0804/final-report-low-res.aspx.