Researchers are using the latest dental scanning technology to examine young corals

Researchers use technology most commonly found in dental offices to study corals.

Inspired by a visit to her dentist, Dr. Kate Quigley studied a new method for monitoring coral size and growth that cuts survey time by 99%.

The Minderoo Foundation’s senior research scientist, who conducted the research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University, noted the similarities between coral and human teeth.

They are both calcium based and require gauges that can withstand wet surfaces.

dr Quigley said: “One day I was at the dentist and they introduced this new scanning device.

“It was immediately clear to me that it could apply to scanning very small corals, since corals and teeth actually share many similar properties.

“The rest is history.”

Coral reefs are among the most productive ecosystems on earth, providing important food and shelter services to people around the world.

But in recent decades they have suffered serious declines, prompting a flurry of research into their basic biology and restoration.

Understanding the critical life stage of young corals allows scientists to predict ecosystem changes, the impact of disturbances and their potential for recovery.

By reconstructing 3D models of corals, researchers can find out their health and how they respond to stresses such as rising temperatures or acidification.

There are several existing methods to create and evaluate these 3D models, but their effectiveness is reduced when measurements are made at small scales.

dr Quigley said: “Right now it’s difficult to accurately measure very small objects in 3D, especially if you’re interested in measuring small live animals like corals without harming them.

A diver explores the diverse corals on Australia's Great Barrier Reef (Alamy/PA)

A diver explores the diverse corals on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (Alamy/PA)

“During my PhD, it took half a day to create a scan and I was interested in scanning hundreds of corals at once.

“This new method will allow scientists, for the first time, to measure thousands of tiny corals quickly, accurately and with no negative impact on the coral’s health.

“This has the potential to expand large-scale marine health surveillance and improve coral reef recovery.”

To assess the effectiveness of this dental scanner, namely the ITero Element 5D Flex, Dr. Quigley young corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s National Sea Simulator.

On average, it took less than three minutes to scan each individual coral and create a model, compared to more than four hours using previous methods.

dr Quigley recorded equally fast and precise performance measuring and comparing models of dead skeletons and live coral tissue.

This eliminated the need to sacrifice live animals to take measurements.

This technology can currently only be used to take measurements from the water. The hardware is not waterproof as the scanner is based on confocal laser technology.

The findings were published in the British Ecological Society’s journal, Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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