Over the past decade, mass coral bleaching events have decimated reefs around the world. In the hope of preventing or mitigating the effects of similar events in the future, some scientists are working feverishly to better understand the environmental conditions that lead to coral death. But others say there is also a pressing need to better understand how corals live and grow, where they’ve recovered, and the conditions that help them bounce back. On that front, they say, we have a lot to learn.
Two of the biggest challenges to truly understanding how corals live are the minuscule size of individual coral polyps and their painfully slow rate of growth and reproduction. To overcome these challenges, coral reef ecologists and technologists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego have teamed up to develop tools that allow them to see corals at an unprecedented scale and pace. Armed with a suite of underwater time-lapse microscopes designed by Jules Jaffe and his team of technologists, including a 3D stereoscopic microscope, ecologists like Clinton Edwards can now peer into the secret lives of coral polyps and study how these tiny organisms grow, reproduce, construct their calcium carbonate homes and interact with their symbiotic algae, as well as how these functions change in response to various environmental factors. They hope that by understanding not just how corals succumb, but also how they survive, we will be better able to protect both coral reefs and the countless lives and livelihoods that depend on them.
This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.