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New AI Tracks Health of Coral Reefs

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A group of scientists at the University of Exeter have created a new artificial intelligence (AI) that can track the health of coral reefs by learning the “song of the reef.” Many people don’t know this, but coral reefs actually have an extremely complex soundscape. Experts must conduct difficult analysis to measure reef health based on sound recordings. 

Training the Computer Algorithm

In the new study, the computer algorithm was trained using multiple recordings of healthy and degraded reefs, which enabled the machine to learn the difference. 

The computer then analyzed a collection of new recordings before successfully identifying reef health 92% of the time, which enabled the team to track the progress of reef restoration projects. 

Ben Williams is lead author of the research. 

“Coral reefs are facing multiple threats including climate change, so monitoring their health and the success of conservation projects is vital,” said Williams. “One major difficulty is that visual and acoustic surveys of reefs usually rely on labor-intensive methods.”

“Visual surveys are also limited by the fact that many reef creatures conceal themselves, or are active at night, while the complexity of reef sounds had made it difficult to identify reef health using individual recordings,” he continued. “Our approach to that problem was to use machine learning — to see whether a computer could learn the song of the reef.” 

“Our findings show that a computer can pick up patterns that are undetectable to the human ear. It can tell us faster, and more accurately, how the reef is doing.” 

Vast Range of Coral Reef Sounds

Fish and other various creatures living on the coral reefs make a wide range of sounds, and experts don’t know what many of them mean. However, the new AI method can distinguish between the overall sounds of healthy and unhealthy reefs. 

The recordings were collected at the Mars Coral Reef Restoration Project, which works to restore heavily damaged reefs in Indonesia. 

Dr. Tim Lamont is co-author from Lancaster University. 

According to Dr. Lamont, the AI method could go a long way in improving coral reef monitoring. 

“This is a really exciting development. Sound recorders and AI could be used around the world to monitor the health of reefs, and discover whether attempts to protect and restore them are working,” Dr. Lamont said.

“In many cases it's easier and cheaper to deploy an underwater hydrophone on a reef and leave it there than to have expert divers visiting the reef repeatedly to survey it — especially in remote locations.”


Alex McFarland is an AI journalist and writer exploring the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has collaborated with numerous AI startups and publications worldwide.