Colorful coral reef found near the surface of the ocean is common, but to find it at greater depths is rare. Colorful coral reef found near the surface of the ocean is common, but to find it at greater depths is rare. A new microscope made for use on the seafloor is powerful enough to show details of living corals in their natural state.

New underwater microscope 'brings lab to the ocean'

Scientists can now study tiny sea life like coral in their natural environment.

Coral reefs may look like little more than miles worth of underwater window dressing, but they're actually living organisms. An innovative new microscope is helping to reinforce this fact, allowing a team of researchers to recently observe them in nature fighting and even "kissing."

The microscope, developed by a team of American and Israeli researchers, is called the Benthic Underwater Microscope (BUM). It can capture high-resolution images of objects about a tenth of the width of human hair (about 10 micrometers).

Scripps Oceanography graduate student Andrew Mullen positions the Benthic Underwater Microscope to study corals.Scripps Oceanography graduate student Andrew Mullen positions the Benthic Underwater Microscope to study corals. (Photo: Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego)

While lab work allows ocean study at much finer detail than this, the researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego wrote in Nature Communications that this is the first microscope made for use on the seafloor that is powerful enough to show details, almost as small as one micron, of living corals in their natural state.

"To understand the evolution of the dynamic processes taking place in the ocean, we need to observe them at the appropriate scale," said Jules Jaffe, the senior author of the study, and head of the Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging at Scripps, who along with Mullen is preparing further studies of coral with BUM.


To test the new technology's ability to capture small-scale processes taking place underwater, the researchers used the imaging system to view millimeter-sized coral polyps off the coast of Israel in the Red Sea, and off Maui, Hawaii.

During experiments in the Red Sea, the researchers captured the interactions of two corals of different species placed close to each other. The images revealed corals emitting string-like filaments that secrete enzymes from their stomach cavity in an effort to destroy the tissue of other species in a competition for seafloor space. Yet, when the researchers placed corals of the same species next to each other, they did not eject these gastric fluids.

The Benthic Underwater Microscope is positioned to study coral competition.The Benthic Underwater Microscope is positioned to study coral competition.(Photo: Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego)

"They can recognize friend versus foe," said Scripps PhD student Andrew Mullen, co-lead author of the study.

The researchers also captured video of neighboring individual polyps on a single coral colony taking turns embracing one another, an unknown phenomenon the researchers call coral polyp "kissing."

"This instrument is a part of a new trend in ocean research to bring the lab to the ocean, instead of bringing the ocean to the lab," said study co-lead author Tali Treibitz, a former Scripps postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Haifa's Charney School of Marine Science, who along with his colleagues is planning further studies of marine life using the microscope.

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