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Coral reefs: a biological symphony being silenced

caption: A researcher deploys a hydrophone on a coral reef in Sulawesi, Indonesia
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A researcher deploys a hydrophone on a coral reef in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tim Lamont/University of Exeter

A common misunderstanding about the sea is that it is silent down there, a quiet world beneath the waves, but it actually couldn't be further from the truth. The coral reef is the noisiest ecosystem in the sea.

To most of us, coral reefs conjure up magical places full of colorful species and life. They are unknown and otherworldly.

“When you put your head underwater on a coral reef, it is just an absolutely dizzying array of shapes and colors and noises and sounds, it is completely overwhelming,” said Tim Lamont, marine biologist at Lancaster University in England.

Their beauty is perhaps a reason why coral reefs have become one of the more famous victims of climate change, warming oceans. Most people have heard that the future for coral reefs is in total jeopardy.

And this is a problem, because about 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs. Scientists are now warning that the Great Barrier Reef could be gone by the year 2050 if nothing is done to help it.

caption: A damaged coral reef in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
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A damaged coral reef in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Tim Lamont/University of Exeter

And it turns out, reefs are noisy places. Fish, shrimp, all the little creatures that call a reef home add to the sonic palette of the place. But as reefs become more unhealthy, life on them is becoming harder for Lamont to hear.

“One of the things we discovered when the reefs were degrading, where it was that they were going quieter, that sort of, you know, this biological symphony was being silenced,” he said.

The sounds of these watery ecosystems are becoming a very important tool for researchers like Lamont. He has an idea that might be key to helping these struggling coral reef ecosystems rebound. Armed with a microphone and an underwater speaker, can the power of audio help save coral reefs?

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife and Wildlife Media. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.

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