As concerns heightened for marine organisms that rely on endangered reefs for their continued existence, researchers from the University of Delaware have explored the possibility of using 3D-printed coral reefs as replacement habitats.

As it is, possibilities of rehabilitating the endangered corals is getting more remote in light of the worsening weather conditions caused by climate change. Plastic pollution and coral bleaching due to continuously warming water temperatures, continue to destroy the already distraught reefs. As a result many marine organisms are without protection against strong waves and harsh tropical storms.

Dr. Danielle Dixson Assistant Professor at the School of Marine Science & Policy at the UD College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, along with Emily Ruhl, a UD alumnus, have tested the viability of 3D-printed coral reefs.

In a laboratory setting, the researchers placed mustard hill larvae and damselfish near a coral skeleton and 4 artificial corals made of different filaments.

One 3D- coral model was made from polyester, another was made from cornstarch, while another from cornstarch mixed with stainless steel powder. The UD researchers’ observations led them to conclusions that the 3D-printed habitats did not in any way impact the behavior of the damselfish. Also, there were no signs the affected marine organisms had preference for any of the materials used as artificial coral reef skeleton.

Behavioral Analysis Shows Great Potential of 3D-Printed Corals

Dr. Dixson is quite happy with the promising results of their experiments, saying that

“Had the fish not use the 3D-printed coral models as a habitat in the wild, they are at greater risk for predation.” “Had the coral larvae did not settle on the artificially constructed coral skeletons, they cannot help rebuild the reef.”

Ruhl on the other hand was surprised that even with the presence of a natural coral, damselfish and the mustard hill larvae alike did not demonstrate any difference in behavior. They took to the different 3D corals in the same way as they did with the natural coral skeleton. Moreover, the activity level of the damselfish remained constant, regardless if their travels were confined inside a tank.

Ruhl, who holds a Masters Degree in Marine Biosciences, was happy to note that the small reef fish did not mind that the habitat was made from calcium carbonate or not, because all they wanted was a place for protection.