As coral reef systems suffer devastating acidification across the globe, researchers have been scrambling to not only save the crucial ocean features but also their ecologically diverse inhabitants. But research released from the University of Delaware on Tuesday could offer some hope: When it comes to where they live, fish are just as happy to shack up in 3D-printed coral reefs as they are with the real thing.
"If the fish on a reef won't use the 3D-printed coral models as a habitat in the wild, it could place them at greater risk for predation by other, larger species," said Danielle Dixson, an associate professor in UD's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment's School of Marine Science and Policy. "If coral larvae won't settle on 3D-printed materials, they can't help to rebuild the reef."
The good news? The tester fish showed no preference, and behaved the same near artificial coral even with a natural coral skeleton present.
To get the right fit, researchers created the 3D coral models by replicating a coral skeleton using 50 iPhone images taken from all angles. The researchers then 3D-printed four different artificial coral models.
In their ongoing work, the researchers are now analyzing field data from Fiji, where they deployed the 3D-printed coral made from biodegradable cornstarch filaments after determining it was safe to use.