Coral Larvae Use Sound to Guide Them
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Coral Larvae Use Sound to Guide Them

August 2, 2010
An adult Montastraea faveolata colony spawning larvae. Researchers recently discovered that baby coral find their way home in their first days as free-swimming larvae by listening to the noise of animals on the reef and actively swimming towards it.

More about this Image Steve Simpson, a senior researcher at the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, worked in collaboration with a team of researchers at the Carmabi Foundation in Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles that was led by Dr. Mark Vermeij. A previous study by Simpson found that baby reef fish used sound as a cue to locate coral reefs. The Dutch team found that coral larvae--which must quickly find a safe place to land and establish a colony or they'll die--behave in the same manner. The team created a "choice chamber," an artificial environment in the lab, and placed the free-swimming larvae in it. In one area of the chamber, recordings of a coral reef were played. The researchers found that the larvae were strongly attracted to the noise as they sought a suitable habitat to settle in.

The researchers used M. faveolata larvae collected during the 2008 spawn, a type of reef-building coral that are dominant in the Caribbean. Researchers don't know for certain how coral detect sounds, but Simpson thinks it may have something to do with the tiny hairs that cover the larvae. Sound stirs up water molecules and this may waggle the tiny hair cells on the larvae, guiding them towards a reef.

Coral reefs are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world right now due to global warming and ocean acidification. In addition, anthropogenic noise masks the natural sounds of the reef. Simpson says the dramatic increase in noise cased by small boats, shipping, drilling; pile driving and seismic testing is drowning out natural sounds of fish and snapping shrimps. This is cause for concern if baby reef fish and coral larvae rely on reef sounds to safely guide them to their destination. Understanding how these vulnerable animals complete their life-cycle is essential to ensure appropriate management.

This research was funded through a fellowship awarded to Simpson by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC, UK) and by the National Science Foundation and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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