Researchers are using the technology most commonly found in dental offices to study coral.
Inspired by a trip to her dentist, Dr. Kate Quigley has devised a new method for monitoring coral size and growth that reduces detection time by 99%.
The senior researcher at the Mindero Foundation who conducted the research at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences and James Cook University noted the similarities between coral and human teeth.
I quickly realized it was something that could be applied to scanning very small corals, as corals and teeth actually share many similar properties.
Dr. Kate Quigley
They are both calcium based and require measuring tools that can withstand wet surfaces.
Dr Quigley said, “I was at the dentist one day and they launched this new scanning machine.
“I quickly realized that it was something that could be applied to scanning very small corals, as corals and teeth actually share many similar properties.
“The rest is history.”
Coral reefs are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth and provide essential nutritional and protective services to people around the world.
But in the past few decades they have undergone severe declines, spurring a flurry of research into their basic biology and restoration.
Understanding the critical life stage of juvenile coral allows scientists to predict ecosystem changes, the impacts of disturbances, and their recovery potential.
By reconstructing 3D models of corals, researchers can uncover their health and response to pressures such as rising temperatures or acidification.
There are several existing methods for building and evaluating these 3D models, but their effectiveness is reduced when building small-scale measurements.
Dr Quigley said: “At the moment, it is difficult to accurately measure very small objects in 3D, especially if you are interested in measuring small live animals, such as coral, without injuring them.
“During my PhD it would take half a day to produce a scan, and I was interested in scanning hundreds of corals at a time.
“For the first time, this new method will allow scientists to measure thousands of tiny corals quickly, accurately and with no negative impact on coral health.
“This has the potential to expand large-scale ocean health monitoring and large-scale coral reef restoration.”
To evaluate the effectiveness of these dental scanners, especially the Itero Element 5D Flex, Dr. Quigley measured juvenile corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences National Sea Simulator.
On average it took less than three minutes to scan and build a model of each individual coral compared to more than four hours with previous methods.
Dr Quigley recorded equally fast and accurate performance when measuring and comparing dead skeleton models and live coral tissue.
This eliminated the need to sacrifice live animals for measurements.
At the moment, this technology can only be used to take measurements out of the water. The hardware is not waterproof as the scanner is based on confocal laser technology.
The findings are published in the British Ecological Society’s journal, Methods in Ecology and Evolution.