Quantcast

This Robot Is Delivering Coral Babies to the Great Barrier Reef

Oceans
Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef, a unique coral formation in Queensland, Australia. Marco Brivio / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

By Marlene Cimons

The climate is changing faster than many species can adapt, so scientists are trying to speed up evolution by fostering the spread of creatures who can take the heat. Think of it as natural selection with a little boost from humans—or, in some cases, robots.


To that end, Australian scientists Peter Harrison and Matthew Dunbabin recently teamed up for a world-first field experiment. A robot Dunbabin designed carried coral larvae that Harrison had gathered and dispersed them on part of the Great Barrier Reef. What makes these larvae unique and the groundbreaking experiment especially promising is that the they are heat-tolerant, meaning they not only can survive, but flourish, in warmer waters.

QUT's LarvalBot makes first delivery of coral babies www.youtube.com

Harrison had collected the larvae from corals that had survived deadly marine heat waves in 2016, 2017 and 2018. "These surviving larvae are likely to have greater ability to withstand heat stress as they survive and grow," Harrison said, meaning they could thrive in a warmer world.

Pollution from fossil fuels is heating up the planet, rendering ocean waters inhospitable for coral. Even in the more optimistic scenarios, virtually all of the world's reefs could be eradicated by mid-century. Ensuring the survival of these natural treasures will depend on cultivating more heat-tolerant corals. That's where the robot, called "LarvalBot," comes in.

"I first thought about the larval restoration concept some decades ago when I was part of the team that discovered the mass coral spawning phenomenon on the Great Barrier Reef in the early 1980s," said Harrison, director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre at Southern Cross University. "Literally billions of coral larvae are produced during mass spawning events from healthy corals, but as coral cover and health have declined to the point where too few larvae are produced from remaining remnant coral populations, we now need to intervene to give nature a helping hand."

The Great Barrier Reef.Wise Hok Wai Lum

Harrison had already developed techniques for mass spawn capture and larval rearing, but "one aspect that I still wanted to develop further was a more efficient larval delivery process onto the damaged reef areas, and so the LarvalBot concept developed from discussions with Matt."

The robot has the capacity to carry around 100,000 microscopic coral larvae per mission, and Dunbabin expects to scale up to millions. The robot gently releases the larvae onto damaged reef areas allowing them to settle and, over time, develop into full-grown corals.

"We call this the 'Swiss-army-knife' of underwater robots, as it was designed to do multiple tasks with customizable payloads, such as photo surveys, water quality monitoring, marine pest surveillance and control, and now coral larvae dispersal," said Dunbabin, a robotics professor at the Queensland University of Technology.

"Using an iPad to program the mission, a signal is sent to deliver the larvae and it is gently pushed out by LarvalBot," said Dunbabin. " It's like spreading fertilizer on your lawn. The robot is very smart, and as it glides along, we target where the larvae need to be distributed so new colonies can form and new coral communities can develop." The robot has an onboard vision system that allows it to "see" its way through reef environments, he explained.

LarvalBot dispersing coral larvae along the Great Barrier Reef.Gary Cranitch / Geat Barrier Reef Foundation / Queensland Museum

"We will be monitoring the survival and growth of juvenile corals as they appear on the reef," Harrison said. "We should start to see juvenile corals after about 9 months when they grow large enough to become visible on the reef."

Later this spring, the researchers plan to send the robot with more larvae to degraded reefs in the Philippines, then will aim for an even larger project on the Great Barrier Reef in late 2019.

One of the advantages of the robot is that it can also monitor the growth of coral reefs, which will help scientists understand how they respond to the larval delivery. This will be critical to scaling up the process. "We need to learn how to restore corals and reefs at larger scales very quickly," Harrison said. "During my lifetime I've witnessed continual degradation of reefs around the world, including parts of the Great Barrier Reef. This is incredibly sad and frustrating."

Dunbabin agreed. "Coral reefs are spectacular! Even now when I jump in the water and see all the fish and colors, I still am in awe of these eco-cities of connected life," he said. "I can't help but feel I need to do something to help restore them to what they were."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Natural Resources Defense Council

By Emily Deanne

Shower shoes? Check. Extra-long sheets? Yep. Energy efficiency checklist? No worries — we've got you covered there. If you're one of the nation's 12.1 million full-time undergraduate college students, you no doubt have a lot to keep in mind as you head off to school. If you're reading this, climate change is probably one of them, and with one-third of students choosing to live on campus, dorm life can have a big impact on the health of our planet. In fact, the annual energy use of one typical dormitory room can generate as much greenhouse gas pollution as the tailpipe emissions of a car driven more than 156,000 miles.

Read More Show Less
Kokia drynarioides, commonly known as Hawaiian tree cotton, is a critically endangered species of flowering plant that is endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii. David Eickhoff / Wikipedia

By Lorraine Chow

Kokia drynarioides is a small but significant flowering tree endemic to Hawaii's dry forests. Native Hawaiians used its large, scarlet flowers to make lei. Its sap was used as dye for ropes and nets. Its bark was used medicinally to treat thrush.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Frederick Bass / Getty Images

States that invest heavily in renewable energy will generate billions of dollars in health benefits in the next decade instead of spending billions to take care of people getting sick from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, according to a new study from MIT and reported on by The Verge.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
A couple works in their organic garden. kupicoo / E+ / Getty Images

By Kristin Ohlson

From where I stand inside the South Dakota cornfield I was visiting with entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, all the human-inflicted traumas to Earth seem far away. It isn't just that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye — are people singing that song again? — but that the field burgeons and buzzes and chirps with all sorts of other life, too.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A competitor in action during the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships in Uummannaq, Greenland on April 9, 2001. Michael Steele / Allsport / Getty Images

Greenland is open for business, but it's not for sale, Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters after hearing that President Donald Trump asked his advisers about the feasibility of buying the world's largest island.

Read More Show Less
AFP / Getty Images / S. Platt

Humanity faced its hottest month in at least 140 years in July, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on Thursday. The finding confirms similar analysis provided by its EU counterparts.

Read More Show Less
Newly established oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Hans Nicholas Jong

Indonesia's president has made permanent a temporary moratorium on forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging.

It's a policy the government says has proven effective in curtailing deforestation, but whose apparent gains have been criticized by environmental activists as mere "propaganda."

Read More Show Less