The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is leading the pack again by creating 3 dimensional maps of reefs to help better understand the distribution and collections of coral species across the globe. By taking some 39,000 images, canvassing more than 17,000 square feet of reef, and 44,008 coral colonies in the Palmyra Atoll, researchers stitched together highly detailed 3D “photomosaics” that they then painstakingly analyzed inch by inch. Graduate student Clinton Edwards who piloted this study said “There is a level of mathematical texture that the eye just can’t catch” and by analyzing these photomosaic canvases the team was able to make surprising discoveries with regard to the spatial ecology of corals. Finding most specifically that corals are much more arranged by design than by random collection, the team assessed coral collections arranged in clusters purposefully by growth and reproductive strategies of a particular coral. Stuart Sandin, Edwards’ PHD advisor and professor of marine ecology at Scripps, added “We use aircraft-mounted cameras to take photos from ten thousand feet, and you can see where trees live and where they grow. And now satellites have even more comprehensive coverage,” Sandin said. “That’s a tremendous amount of data, and the sky’s the limit for what we analyze and what we have learned about basic and applied ecology. Now you go underwater and the spatial data are essentially absent. What can we do? You have to start by trying to map it.”
Teaming up with Scripps ecologist Jennifer Smith, Sandin’s lab and staff have created The 100 Island Challenge. This project combines researchers and labs from all across the globe to survey 100 islands using Sandin’s photomosaic approach, and so far the team has visited 70 of the 100 islands. “That’s a tremendous amount of data, and the sky’s the limit for what we analyze and what we have learned about basic and applied ecology.” added Sandin. A collaboration between programs at UC San Diego made this study possible. Vid Petrovic, a computer science PhD student in Professor Falko Kuester’s lab in the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, created the software that Sandin’s team used. “More and more imagery is being collected across the field of marine sciences, and the pace and scale of the effort will only increase–but more data doesn’t automatically mean more, or better science,” Petrovic said. “It’s an honor and a joy to be working so closely with a group of marine ecologists to address this, developing collaboratively the tools and workflows that are needed to make productive use of the imagery, whether for monitoring reef health, or for advancing basic science.” Read more here!