Colourful coral reef

Researchers use dental scanner to study coral growth

Image credit: Dreamstime

Inspired by a trip to the dentist, scientists have developed a new method for monitoring coral size and growth that reduces surveying time by 99 per cent.

Australian researchers are using technology most commonly found in dentists’ surgeries to study coral, after noting the similarities between coral and human teeth: both are calcium-based and need to be measured on wet surfaces. 

Dr Kate Quigley, a senior research scientist at the Minderoo Foundation who conducted the research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University, said she came up with the idea to use dental scanning technology in her coral studies during a visit to the dentist. 

“One day I was at the dentist and they rolled out this new scanning machine," she said. “I knew immediately that it was something that could apply to scanning very small corals given corals and teeth actually share many similar properties."

Coral reefs are among the Earth’s most productive ecosystems and provide essential nutritional and protective services to people across the globe.

Although coral reefs only 0.2 per cent of the seafloor, they support at least 25 per cent of marine species and underpin the safety, coastal protection, well-being, food and economic security of 450 million people in over 100 countries, according to Our World In Data. 

However, coral reefs are very vulnerable to changes in temperature and pollution. Currently, it is estimated that over 200 coral species are at risk of extinction.

Undated handout photo issued by Dr Kate Quigleys of a 3D model of a baby coral skeleton scanned on a dental scanner.

Undated handout photo issued by Dr Kate Quigleys of a 3D model of a baby coral skeleton scanned on a dental scanner. / PA Media

Image credit: Undated handout photo issued by Dr Kate Quigleys of a 3D model of a baby coral skeleton scanned on a dental scanner.

In order to better understand coral growth and develop measures that protect coral reefs, scientists such as Quigley are working to reconstruct coral 3D models that can shed light on its health and response to pressures such as rising temperatures or acidification. Other scientists have instead looked at artificial intelligence models that can listen to the "song of the reef" to determine its health. 

To date, none of the models developed has been able to effectively reconstruct measurements at small scales. 

“At the moment, it is difficult to accurately measure very small objects in 3D, especially if you are interested in measuring small live animals, like coral, without hurting them," Quigley said. 

“For the first time, this new method will allow scientists to measure thousands of tiny corals fast, accurately and without any negative health impacts on the coral. This has the potential to expand large-scale monitoring of ocean health and for up-scaling coral reef restoration.”

To test her theory, Quigley measured juvenile corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator using the ITero Element 5D Flex dental scanner. The results of her experiments showed that it took, on average, under three minutes to scan and build a model of each individual coral, compared with more than four hours with previous methods.

At present, this technology can only be used to perform measurements out of the water. The hardware is not waterproof as the scanner relies on confocal laser technology.

Quigley's experiments were done on models of dead skeletons and living coral tissue, removing the need to sacrifice live animals to take measurements.

The findings are published in the British Ecological Society journal, Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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