Scientists at the University at Buffalo create 3D models of coral reefs to protect coral

Corals are marine animals that live in symbiosis with algae, particularly zooxanthellae, which provide them with the food they need for their growth. Unfortunately, coral reefs, which are very important to the marine ecosystem, are affected by global warming, pollution and overfishing. Saving them is so important to a marine ecosystem, Angela Martinez Quintana, a scientist at the University of Buffalo in New York State, has created 3D digital models to identify the best micro-habitats for tiny coral reefs.

Coral reefs are underwater structures built from limestone produced by corals. Its many cavities are veritable little habitats for many species, Angela Martinez Quintana wanted to answer the following questions: “ Where do coral larvae, called planetesimals, like to settle? What seascapes help the young of different coral species to thrive? And do different species compete for the same exact habitat on coral reefs? »

For this purpose, I created 3D digital models depicting all the details of the reef’s surface. This research is part of a larger project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to explore how and why some species of coral live while others die, led by Howard Lasker, PhD, at California State University and Peter Edmonds, PhD, at California State University, Northridge.

Angela Martinez Quintana started her business with an essential tool: the caliper. She explains:

“When I started doing this, I didn’t know that corals could be reproduced digitally, and I tried measuring the holes and cracks on the corals with calipers. »

Given the scale of the task, she turned to Stuart Sanden, Ph.D., and Nicole Pedersen, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who advised her to use a “structure of motion” »a photometric technique that digitally reproduces 3D structures from overlapping 2D image sequences.

Angela Martinez Quintana has captured close-up videos of coral reefs in the US Virgin Islands, including small square stretches of seafloor called quadrats. Thus she was able to capture the topography of coral reefs to the smallest detail, discovering the things that others hide as well as the areas hidden under the overhanging layers.

She explains:

“These creatures can only measure a few millimeters, so to find them, I spent hours with my face 10 centimeters from the bottom of the reef. »

Analyzing coral preferences in a complex 3D ecosystem

Angela Martinez Quintana sought to understand the distribution of young corals in a complex three-dimensional ecosystem and worked with biogeographer Adam Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences to achieve this.

Thus Adam Wilson developed a computational approach to analyze these models, each consisting of several points containing information about the underwater landscape that together form a three-dimensional polygonal network. The biographer’s innovative approach allows scientists to study the distribution of coral recruiters (small soft corals) on the surface of the network, helping to identify micro-habitat characteristics suitable for recruits of different coral species.

Angela Martinez Quintana explains:

“This method has the potential to be revolutionary, as it will allow us to better understand how organisms divide their environment and interact with each other in complex three-dimensional ecosystems. It can be used not only on coral reefs, but also on ecosystems such as the rainforest canopy.” »

Adam Wilson adds:

“The really innovative thing about Angela’s research is that she uses these 3D models to learn more about ecological processes. She is interested in the successful recruitment and growth of young corals on the reef, so she identified where the coral recruits are in this landscape, and then she used statistical models and machine learning models To try to deduce the appropriate micro-habitats for the success of these coral reefs. »

Howard Lasker, University of Buffalo Geology Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Environment and Sustainability, Angela Martinez Quintana’s thesis supervisor, says:

“By developing these 3D models, Angela has opened up new ways to answer important questions, which we didn’t have the tools to answer. »

For Angela Martínez Quintana, these 3D models hold great promise for both research and education.

Article sources: University at Buffalo press release, written by Charlotte Hsu.

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