Scientists are now able to observe dancing coral much more closely thanks to new underwater microscope technology.

A new study published July 12 in the journal Nature Communications shows how researchers are able to peer into the secret lives of dancing coral. The new equipment which makes this possible is called the Benthic Underwater Microscope (BUM), writes Christina Beck for The Christian Science Monitor.

Dancing Coral
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

High-tech microscope a boon for scientists

The underwater world has come alive thanks to the new microscope, which has a high-resolution camera, a waterproof computer with diver interface, LED lights for quick exposure images and a flexible, adjustable lens which lets researchers look at underwater features in three dimensions.

“To understand the evolution of the dynamic processes taking place in the ocean,” said study lead author Jules Jaffe in a statement, “we need to observe them at the appropriate scale.”

Coral is the first underwater life form to be observed with the new equipment. While most people think that the invertebrates are stationary, they are in fact made up of tiny polyps, creatures that look like upside down jellyfish fixed to the bottom of the reef.

Coral reefs compete for space underwater

Millions of polyps secrete calcium carbonate in order to build coral reefs, and the animals give color and nutrients to reefs. Scientists have now been able to observe the polyps as they ate, swayed and “danced.”

Thanks to the microscope the researchers were able to watch from just two inches away as the polyps captured tiny plankton and brine shrimp with their tentacles. The team left the microscope in place overnight in order to observe their behavior for a longer period of time, showing how they “danced” and kissed after meals. Scientists believe that these kisses may transfer nutrients among the colony.

The Benthic Underwater Microscope also showed a violent aspect to life as a polyp, with coral of different species taking over weaker colonies. To gain more space, the stronger coral give off filaments that secrete stomach enzymes which work to break down the tissue of weaker colonies.

The BUM has been put through its paces in the waters off of Maui and Israel to date. Scientists are taking a particular interest in the coral reefs off of Maui due to their exposure to the large coral bleaching events that are taking place this year. 2016 has been one of the worst years for coral bleaching.

Algae outgrows weakened coral after bleaching events

Scientists have gained new insight into bleached areas thanks to the BUM. They have discovered a honeycomb pattern of algal colonization, with algae moving in when coral is weakened from bleaching. Algae growth has also been observed on individual polyps.

Algae take advantage of weak coral reefs and are able to outgrow and smother them.

Researchers are excited about the potential future uses of the BUM, which they say represents a huge leap in capabilities for underwater studies.

“This underwater microscope is the first instrument to image the seafloor at such small scales,” said Dr. Jaffe’s co-lead author Andrew Mullen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“This instrument is a part of a new trend in ocean research to bring the lab to the ocean, instead of bringing the ocean to the lab,” said fellow lead author Tali Treibitz of the University of Haifa.

The next job for the BUM is a study of coral surfaces and tiny particles around them in the water. Scientists want to improve their knowledge of how coral manage to breathe through gas exchange.