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Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Preserving Coral Reefs Through the Power of Listening (and a Little Help From AI)

sea turtle swimming in coral reefs

You’ve likely heard about AI chatbots, the latest tech innovation sweeping the globe. But did you know that AI, or artificial intelligence, could also help save corals? Through a novel citizen-science project, time mindlessly wasted online can be put to use helping scientists understand, and even restore, the world's coral reefs. 

Google teamed up with a pair of marine biologists, Steve Simpson and Mary Shodipo, to launch the Calling in our Corals project earlier this month. The platform aims to use acoustic recordings to measure the success of marine protected areas and other restoration programs, with a little help from everyday people as well as AI. 

Coral reefs are a hotspot for biodiversity and provide a range of benefits for people and the environment, but they're also one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Soundscapes are a promising new tool to help restore them. Plus, unlike cat videos, listening to the weird cacophony of coral sounds is a guilt-free distraction.

How does this AI model work?

Marine biologists have recorded the surprisingly vibrant sounds of coral reefs in 10 countries. The chirps and grunts of healthy reefs burst forth like a lively metro area at rush hour, while the muted tones of damaged reefs resemble a sleepy village. Anyone can log onto Google's platform to listen to these reef recordings and identify sounds made by fish, shrimp and other underwater animals. These crowd-sourced data are then used to train an AI model.

AI may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but this branch of computer science was invented in the 1950s. It works by taking in large amounts of training data, crunching the data for patterns, and using those insights to make predictions. 

Scientists have collected hundreds of hours of recordings, so they need many participants to sculpt training data out of this ocean of underwater acoustics. The researchers plan to use this tool to better understand coral reef diversity and hopefully pinpoint individual species.

But that’s not all. Impressively, this tool may also help to restore reefs. Some animals, like fish larvae, corals and other invertebrates, spend their larval stage in the open ocean. The sounds of a healthy reef act like a beacon, encouraging juvenile animals to settle there. Consequently, playing the music of healthy reefs on underwater speakers may accelerate their regrowth and restoration.

Coral reefs benefit people and the planet

Noisiness aside, restoring these valuable habitats provides many benefits. For starters, coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Known as the rainforests of the sea, they cover only around 1 percent of the ocean floor but support nearly 25 percent of all marine species, including fish, turtles, corals, lobsters, sponges, sea stars and clams. Numerous commercially-fished species depend on coral reefs during part of their life cycle, generating more than $100 million annually in the U.S. alone. Likewise, recreational fishing on coral reefs contributes an additional $100 million each year to the U.S. economy.

But that’s just skimming the surface. Coral reefs also act as natural breakwaters that buffer us from the ocean. Reefs can absorb up to 97 percent of a wave's energy, protecting shorelines from storms, waves and floods. This prevents erosion, property damage and loss of human life in coastal communities. Globally, coral reefs are estimated to reduce storm damage by nearly $5 billion each year. 

Finally, it’s no secret that coral reefs are beautiful places. Millions of tourists flock to these places for diving, snorkeling and boating — contributing an impressive $44 billion to local economies annually across the globe. Overall, coral reefs provide food, livelihood, shoreline protection and other services to a billion people.

But they're under increasing threat

Unfortunately, the global extent of these habitats has declined by half since the 1950s, with subsequent losses in biodiversity and catches of coral-reef-associated fish. The coral reefs remaining are predicted to degrade rapidly over the next 20 years.

Coral reefs face a laundry list of threats including coastal development, sediment runoff, pollution, invasive species, poorly managed tourism and unsustainable fishing practices. And then there’s climate change, the screeching trombone of the coral reef symphony.

Global warming fuels rising ocean temperatures, which can stress corals. Prolonged periods of extreme temperatures can lead to coral bleaching as corals expel their symbiotic algae. Without the helpful algae, corals lose their vibrant hues and major food source. They’re also left more vulnerable to disease. Bleaching events often kill corals outright, while less severe incidents can weaken corals by reducing their growth and reproduction. Regrettably, bleaching events have become five times more frequent since the 1980s. Ocean acidification, another side effect of climate change, can also slow coral growth and weaken their skeletons.

How you can get involved 

Coral reefs are vital ecosystems that need protection. If you have the time, start training and contributing to the listening project. Training lasts only three minutes, while the clips of reef sounds are just 30 seconds each.

This citizen-science project makes a great activity or contest for students, companies or clubs. It’s an easy and fun way to help one of the world’s most valuable habitats and safeguard the multitude of benefits they provide.

Image credit: Belle Co/Pexels

Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.

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