3D-printed coral reef condos get 2 fins up from fish

Struggling reef life could get a boost from prefab homes.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
Rae Hodge

Shown here are 3D-printed coral models of Acropora formosa, a type of coral found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The 3D-printed models of differing complexity were secured to an area of a reef with low-complexity, then observed to understand which habitat the fish preferred.

University of Delaware

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.  

Read: The best 3D printers in 2019 for beginners and budget creators  

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. 


A humbug damselfish interacts with 3D-printed coral during UD field experiments in Fiji.

University of Delaware