New Tech Helps Belize Reef Experts See Big Picture

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Lugging a wide assortment of photographic equipment, the Belize expedition group also carried a small network of laptops, and sent dispatches to Web producers via a satellite uplink.

The Belize expedition demonstrated that it's possible to gather detailed data using equipment like 360-degree panoramic cameras synchronized with hydrophones and coordinated with GPS systems.

"Such a contraption could be useful to monitor the behavior of group spawning by grouper and other reef fishes that congregate at fixed spawning aggregation sites at predictable times of the year," said Mark Hixon, a zoology professor at Oregon State University.

The team also recorded underwater sound. "We can embed the sound positionally" in the panoramas, Addison said.

Newer, slightly more exotic technologies may also figure in studies of the area. Provided their deployment didn't harm the environment, sensors could be scattered widely to measure micro-currents, temperature, salinity, and other conditions, according to Addison.

"You could imagine putting a grid of a thousand sensors in a coral reef or the ocean floor that could be beaming back data wirelessly. You could track in very fine detail cooling and warming—the warming that causes the bleaching effect, for example," Addison said, referring to the harmful condition caused when coral reefs loose their symbiotic algae.

Similar sensors are used in office buildings as part of environmental control systems, and some researchers are already using micro-sensors to study corral reefs.

The digital image bank built up during November's excursion will be made available, with GPS coordinates for each shot, according to Addison. "In the future, 20 [to] 50 years from now, this may be [scientifically] useful, [if researchers keep it accessible] rather than putting it on a bookshelf and forgetting about it," he said.

Addison plans to return to Belize in May for a more extensive multi-disciplinary study.

Well-Trained Mind Still Trumps High-Tech Gear

The leap from low-tech to modest-tech can make a significant difference in the study of ecosystems, said James Thomas, a professor at Nova Southeastern Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida.

"If you give somebody a rubber raft and a thermometer and tell them to row out into a lagoon every day and take the temperature, you're not doing a whole lot," he said. "But if you give them a video camera and monitoring tools, you can get more done."

Digital cameras, laptops, and satellite Web connections can speed the key work of taxonomy in the field, Thomas said. "One of the arguments of systemicists is that most of the species in coral reefs are unknown. It's more than fish and coral."

Nonetheless, even the latest and greatest technologies are just tools.

"Technology does not eliminate the need for old fashion hard work and bottom time if you want to learn about coral reefs," said Steven Miller, director of the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "I have a lot of experience using video imaging on coral reefs, and nothing substitutes for having a trained, expert mind collecting data the old fashion way—with pencils and slates."

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Do Hammerheads Follow Magnetic Highways in Migration?
Study Calls Into Question Global Quotas on Bluefin Tuna
Research Expedition Aimed at Halting Loss of Black Coral

Related Web site

Glovers Reef Marine Research Station

View another Photo Gallery of Belize and its Barrier Reef: Go>>

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