Listening to Dying Coral Reefs

Written by on December 12, 2014 in Coral Reefs, Marine Life

New research reveals that you can actually hear coral reefs dying.

Barrel sponge in a reef around the islands of the Philippines. Photo credit: <a href="">PacificKlaus</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>.

Barrel sponge in a reef around the islands of the Philippines. Photo credit: PacificKlaus via photopin cc.

Coral reefs are some of the loudest environments on the planet. A new study from the Universities of Essex and Exeter found that reefs heavily impacted by human activity (like overfishing) are much quieter than protected reefs.

Researchers took acoustic recordings of coral reefs with varying levels of protection around the Philippines. They found that the the noise made on unprotected reefs was just a third of the noise made around healthy reef communities.

“Taking sound recordings is a cheap, fast and objective way to get a broad idea of whether a reef is in a good condition or not,” explained Dr. Steve Simpson from the University of Exeter. “While it cannot replace detailed visual surveys conducted by snorkelers or divers, it gives a good account of the cryptic and nocturnal species missed in visual census, and quickly provides a general picture of the state of coral reefs without requiring time-consuming surveys and extensive training.”

The findings could have a big impact in the long-term, because many larval fish and invertebrates that eventually settle on reefs begin their lives floating around away from the reef. They are able to make their way back to the reef with the help of sound. If reefs continue to get quieter, they won’t be replenished enough to maintain healthy population levels.

“In an environment where underwater noise plays such an important role in the population dynamics of coral reefs, it is alarming to find such a large effect of human impact on the natural acoustic environment,” explained study leader Dr. Julius Piercy from the University of Essex. “This puts reef sound in the spotlight for the people who manage coral reef ecosystems on two counts. Firstly, that they might need to consider reef sound as an integral part of the design of marine protected area networks to ensure that there is sufficient recruitment of larvae within and between reserves and neighbouring reefs. Secondly, this study shows sound can be useful in monitoring the health of coral reefs.”

The difference in sound is dramatic. You can hear it in the clips at the bottom of the University of Essex news release, here.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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