New Microscope Lets Scientists See Living Corals Dancing Underwater

Looking at small scales in a big field

Coral reefs are huge, but corals themselves are very, very small. Australia's Great Barrier Reef has an area of 132,974 square miles, while an individual coral polyp is only one millimeter long.

So how can researchers get an up-close and personal look at individual corals without removing them from their habitat? By using a newly developed underwater microscope.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego describe the creation of what they're calling a Benthic Underwater Microscope.

The microscope, in addition to being waterproof, can also easily be carried by a diver down to the seafloor where the corals live, and can operate there for hours.

Microscope Underwater

Microscope Underwater

A diver with the Benthic Underwater Microscope.Emily L. A. Kelly

Once underwater, the microscope, which can adjust like a very powerful human eye, takes some pretty glorious images and footage of individual coral polyps, the building blocks of the reefs that we all know and love, without disturbing them.

Coral Close Up

Coral Close Up

Coral polyps as seen through the microscope while in the field in Eliat, Israel.Andrew Mullen

Researchers want to better understand how corals behave while in their environment, in part because their environment is changing so dramatically. Coral bleaching, which occurs when warm waters force corals to eject their algae symbionts, is occuring at an unprecedented rate, and to top it all off, reefs are getting infected with herpes and other viruses.

The hope is that eventually, if researchers can understand how corals live in the wild, they might be able to conserve them. But first, they need a closer look.