Sounds of Healthy Coral Reefs Might Help Endangered Corals

Laverne Higgins
December 1, 2019

Working on Australia's recently devastated Great Barrier Reef, the global research team from the Universities of Exeter and Bristol, Australia's James Cook University, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, placed loudspeakers underwater playing healthy reef recordings in patches of dead coral.

It's hoped this discovery could help to restore damaged coral reefs.

On the other 22 patches no sounds were played - although in half of these a dummy speaker was present. So, the researchers reasoned, giving younger fish some aural encouragement could bring them back to these dead reefs. The goal was to see whether they could lure back the diverse communities of fish that are essential to counteracting reef degradation.

Researchers experimented by playing sounds of healthy coral reefs on a loudspeaker, which led to an improvement in marine life of the area.

On 11 of the patches, the team played the sounds of a healthy reef at night through loudspeakers, starting shortly before sunset and ending just after sunrise - when fish are known to turn up and settle at reefs.

"Healthy coral reefs are remarkably noisy places the crackle of snapping shrimps and fish whoops and grunts combine to form a dazzling organic soundscapes, says the author of the paper and marine biologist colleague of Exeter Steve Simpson. Juvenile fish home in on these sounds when they're looking for a place to settle", wrote senior author and University of Exeter marine biology professor Stephen Simpson.

Severe coral bleaching triggered by extreme heat waves killed off 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, the planet's largest coral reef, in 2016 and 2017. The new fish populations included species from all parts of the food web, such as scavengers, herbivores and predatory fish. And the reefs become quiet when they start to degrade, so the fish and the shrimps disappear.

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Fish are able to clean the reef and create space for corals to re-grow, so they're really useful for its survival.

Study co-author Professor Andy Radford, of Bristol University, said: "Acoustic enrichment is a promising technique for management on a local basis".

An worldwide team of scientists from the UK's University of Exeter and University of Bristol, and Australia's James Cook University and Australian Institute of Marine Science, say this "acoustic enrichment" could be a valuable tool in helping to restore damaged coral reefs.

"However, we still need to [undertake] a host of other threats including climate change, overfishing, and water pollution to protect these fragile ecosystems", researchers added.

According to the team, the coral sites with speakers broadcasting healthy reef sounds saw the arrival of twice as many fish compared to the control sites.

The study was published and can be read in full on the journal Nature Communications.

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