A Scottish reef that is home to more than 100 million colourful and rare shellfish could be the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.
The reef of flame shells, which covers an area more than 40 times larger than the UK's biggest shopping centre, was discovered during a survey commissioned by Marine Scotland.
It was found in Loch Alsh, a sea inlet between Skye and the Scottish mainland, which could now be given extra environmental protection.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "The seas around Scotland are a hotbed of biodiversity and the clean and cold waters support many fascinating and beautiful species.
"With Scottish waters covering an area around five times bigger than our landmass, it's a huge challenge to try and understand more about our diverse and precious sea life.
"This important discovery may be the largest grouping of flame shells anywhere in the world."
At 7.5 sq km, the area the reef covers dwarfs the 180,000 sq metres taken up by MetroCentre in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.
The shells it contains have a similar shape to scallops with many neon orange tentacles. They group together on the sea bed and their nests create a living reef to support hundreds of other species.
Ben James, marine survey and monitoring manager at Scottish Natural Heritage, said the reef would form part of a bid for Marine Protected Status.
Human activity would be managed and restricted to ensure it does not harm wildlife or damage habitats.
"Whilst we had some records of flame shells in Loch Alsh, we had no idea how big the bed was," Mr James said. "It's yet another example of the fantastic diversity of Scotland's marine environment."
Last month, the Scottish government applied to the European Union to designate an area in the northeast Atlantic as a conservation area.
Hatton Bank, near the Isle of Lewis, is around 9,750 sq miles (15,700 sq km) and features a large volcanic bank which is home to a large variety of corals.