3-D Printed Coral Could Save Endangered Reefs

December 3rd, 2019

By Amelia Harris

Staff Writer for Wake Up World

The value of coral reefs is inestimable. They are essential to ocean life, with one-quarter of ocean species depending on them for food and shelter. (1)

They’re also incredibly important for humans. Coral reefs provide food, shoreline protection, tourism jobs and dollars, and medicines. (1)

Coral Reef Destruction

But coral reefs, which cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface, are in danger, mostly due to the actions of humans. Overfishing, pollution, destructive fishing, invasive species, and changing ocean chemistry are all threats to coral reefs. (1)

In some places, coral reefs have already been entirely destroyed. And in others, they are not far from destruction. (1)

In response to reefs’ dire situation, conservation efforts are underway. Locally, efforts ensuring that fish populations are healthy and that the water around reefs is clean can help boost the health of coral. (1)

3-D Printed Coral

Researchers are also investigating creative solutions to the coral reef crisis. Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware (UD) and Emily Ruhl, a UD alumnus, are investigating the possibility of using 3-D printed coral to replace or supplement affected reefs. (2)

Like other reef researchers, Dixon and Ruhl’s goal is to find a way to keep the right animals present in a reef after it experiences a crisis. When exploring options for 3-D printed coral, it’s important to choose materials that will neither harm remaining coral nor negatively impact fish behavior. (2)

“If the fish on a reef won’t use the 3D-printed coral models as a habitat in the wild, it could place them at greater risk for predation by other larger species,” Dixson told Science Daily. Dixson is an associate professor in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s School of Marine Science and Policy. “If coral larvae won’t settle on 3D-printed materials, they can’t help to rebuild the reef.” (2)

For the laboratory experiments, researchers made four 3-D printed coral models made from different materials. They placed the models in a tank with a native coral skeleton. The researchers placed damselfish into the tank and observed whether the fish preferred one type of coral more than the others. (2)

Environmentally Friendly Materials

The results surprised them. The fish did not show a preference between the native coral skeleton and the four 3-D printed models. Their activity level stayed the same despite which habitat they were in. (2)

“I thought the natural skeleton would elicit more docile (that is, accepting) behavior compared to 3D-printed objects,” Ruhl said to Science Daily. She earned her master’s degree in marine biosciences at UD in 2018. “But then we realized the small reef fish didn’t care if the habitat was artificial or calcium carbonate, they just wanted protection.” (2)

This discovery will allow scientists to use environmentally friendly materials, such as biodegradable cornstarch, rather than plastic when producing 3-D printed coral. There are many concerns about introducing more plastic to the ocean environment. Using environmentally friendly and biodegradable materials will allow the live coral to take its place as it strengthens. (2)

“Offering 3D-printed habitats is a way to provide reef organisms a structural starter kit that can become part of the landscape as fish and coral build their homes around the artificial coral,” Dixson told Science Daily. “And since the materials we selected are biodegradable, the artificial coral would naturally degrade over time as the live coral overgrows it.” (2)

Article sources:

  1. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/corals-and-coral-reefs
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191016124633.htm

About the author:

Amelia Harris is a writer and eco-activist, interested in health and all things esoteric, with a passion for sharing good news and inspiring stories. She is a staff writer for Wake Up World.

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