Researchers have developed a new method of creating realistic aquatic artificial habitats that could help scientists better understand and restore real-world environments.
Aneri Garg, who completed the to research as part of his master’s studies under the supervision of Stephanie Green, first developed the 3D Scan, Print, Mold and Mold (3D-SPMC) method on a project involving coral reefs. As Garg explains, studying the characteristics of living habitats that attract and retain different organisms is crucial in research on ecological habitat selection and, by extension, restoration planning.
“Especially for biogenic (living) habitats, they all have some sort of structural feature or architectural complexity, but they’re also made up of living tissue,” says Garg. “We’re trying to answer as many fundamental questions as possible about these really important habitats.”
Green notes that the Caribbean coral reefs, where Garg and Green work, have lost 80 percent of their corals in recent decades. Lost or degraded habitats, including aquatic habitats such as coral reefs, have also been identified as the main threat to 85 percent of the species on the International Union for Conservation of Naturethe “red list” of threatened species.
Garg and his team were able to create artificial 3D habitats that look realistic and remain stable underwater, allowing for extended observation and providing an important tool for studying the behavior of fish and other underwater organisms.
Garg notes that the 3D-SPMC method can be used for many purposes, including aquatic restoration planning, and that each step in the process can be modified or adapted to meet specific needs.
An interdisciplinary method
To create the method, Garg first took stock of current practices for creating these types of artificial habitats, looking at the materials and methods used and what some of the challenges and limitations have been. Next, she created an integrative method with three key metrics in mind: accessibility, scalability, and green considerations.
She needed a cost-effective way to create around 400 pieces of artificial coral reef for her research project and she wanted them to be as realistic as possible to gather accurate data on how underwater organisms interacted with them. . She also didn’t want to introduce additional plastic into the ocean or use materials that could leach contaminants into the water.
“The method involved thinking about how we reduce the negative characteristics and integrate the positive characteristics of these different materials and methods,” says Garg.
The researchers predict that the 3D-SPMC method performs at the same level or better than other artificial habitat materials and designs typically used in habitat selection studies.
Garg points out that creating the new method was not a linear process. She has followed people in disciplines ranging from paleontology to engineering to the arts, gleaning tips and insights along the way while refining her approach.
She started by using a 3D scanner to capture the shape and tiny features of the coral skeletons, provided by the curator of the biology department’s invertebrate collection, biologist Heather Supervisor. Then she brought the scan to life with a 3D printer, modifying the structure slightly to speed up the printing process and make molding the shape easier.
Garg then poured a type of silicone over the 3D printed figures to create a set of molds. “We basically made a sort of ice cube tray, sheets of molds that we could quickly expand to make the artificial corals and could be reused.” Finally, she used countertop concrete to fill the molds and create the actual coral reef structures.
Aneri Garg assembles the artificial coral reef modules. (Video: provided)
Made in the lab, planted in the ocean
To test the effectiveness of the new method — and begin to answer other key research questions about aquatic organisms and their interaction with their habitats — Garg and his team had to take the pieces of artificial coral into the ocean.
“Coral restoration is almost analogous to planting trees. You grow a bunch of baby corals in the nursery, then you take them to where you want to put them and plant them there,” says Garg.
Inspired by the Coral Restoration Foundation’According to best practices, Garg decided to use epoxy to secure the parts at a designated study site in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. For two days, a team of 30 people worked to replant the 800 pieces of coral (400 live and 400 artificial) in nearly 100 habitat patches, where Garg and his collaborators returned to check on them.
Research assistant Taylor Restall affixes artificial corals to the Carysfort Reef study site in Florida, USA. (Video: provided)
In her future work, Garg plans to examine the impact of different percentages of live and artificial corals in habitat patches, and whether the exact area they are found in makes a difference to the high-biodiversity communities that live in them. and around coral reefs.
She says the ability to create these types of realistic and adaptable man-made habitats allows researchers and partner organizations to move toward more effective conservation planning and begin to find answers to some pressing questions.
“It’s important to restore these habitats that are degrading due to human activities, but at the same time we also need to address the root causes.”
Since the process is almost endlessly customizable, the next steps could involve everything from slightly modifying the shape of the coral to considering additions that might affect fish behavior, such as creating a biofilm coating that would reduce the amount of algae settling on the reef pieces. Ultimately, Garg hopes other researchers can use this method as a tool to answer all of their research questions.
“It’s an opportunity to be creative. Who knows, someone may take the method and do something totally different, which would be great.