WHOI researchers test cutting-edge technology on STJ

WHOI researchers test cutting-edge technology on STJ

UVI marine researchers Paul Jobsis (far left) and Marilyn Brandt (far right) work with WHOI researchers Amy Apprill, Aran Mooney, Weifeng “Gordon” Zhang and Yogesh “Yogi” Girdhar. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

Underwater robots using machine learning to teach themselves to think like a diver exploring a coral reef.

Computer models show swirling tides and currents that may reveal why marine life thrives in one place and not another.

Underwater hearing aids that detect the sounds of healthy reefs and alert scientists when marine life is at risk.

These are just some of the cutting-edge technologies tested in St. John’s waters a few weeks ago by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, better known as WHOI.

The team of 21 WHOI scientists and students was based at the University of the Virgin Islands Marine Laboratory in Lameshur Bay on St. John. Originally built in the 1960s, the lab is now part of VIERS – the Virgin Islands Educational Research Station – a rustic conference center for youth to learn about the environment and marine scientists to do serious work.

Most of VIERS’ facilities were destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017, but the old marine laboratory, rebuilt in 2006 by the University of the Virgin Islands and the National Science Foundation, still stands.

In early November, activity was buzzing as the researchers took advantage of the relatively calm tropical waters to see exactly what their devices could do.

Among them was microbial ecologist Amy Apprill, the team leader of WHOI’s Reef Solutions, a multidisciplinary initiative developing new technologies to monitor reef dynamics and health, as well as intervention tools. As coral reefs around the world are dying at an alarming rate, the goal of the initiative is to protect reef ecosystems from the effects of climate change and, with luck and science, even reverse some of the damage.

Aran Mooney shows a jar of coral larvae. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

Aran Mooney, whose work The Source featured last November, was back on the island honing his hearing aids, which record the “snap, crackle and pop” sounds of a healthy reef – plus the occasional high-pitched “whoop” of a passing humpback whale.

That year, researchers also analyzed water samples from Mooney’s six sites on the south side of St. John, using syringes with filters attached to collect microbes.

Amy Apprill demonstrates a syringe used to collect marine microbes while Aran Mooney looks on. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

“Each reef habitat has a unique microbial signature,” Apprill said. “We can look at the microbes — using molecular biomarkers — to see what species are there.”

The molecular biomarkers will also be analyzed to find the cause of hard coral tissue loss disease, a disease that has been devastating brain coral, star coral and other important reef-building species in the Virgin Islands since 2019.

Apprill and colleagues from the University of the Virgin Islands are studying the microbes that may be causing coral death and are closely examining around 20 possible pathogens. With 10 million microbes in 20 drops of water, narrowing down the range of possibilities is a challenge.

Meanwhile, marine chemist Colleen Hansel field-tested the DISCO, a tool for non-invasively studying coral stress markers, with a “vitamin blend” for corals.

Hansel is part of a group of scientists working on the development of materials used to build artificial reefs. “The goal is to produce growth substrates that provide an immune/growth boost to larvae landing on deteriorating reefs – making recovery efforts more successful,” according to a WHOI press release.

Jeff Coogan, an engineer at WHOI, tested ceramic tiles (made from aragonite and trace metals) on which corals can be grown in labs or in the sea. Coral larvae like to grow along edges, so tiles with grooves in various patterns were studied.

To determine which materials and designs work best, Nadège Aoki, a graduate student in a joint program between the WHOI and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was busy peering into a microscope to identify and count the tiny creatures that grow on the tiles.

Nadège Aoki peers into a microscope to find coral larvae on material being tested for artificial reefs. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

While some researchers looked at the microscopic image, others took a much broader view. Among them is Weifeng Gordon Zhang, who studies how water flows around reefs.

Zhang showed examples of his computer models showing how temperature, salinity and currents vary around St. John. His models show that the water on the north coast has more salinity and currents than on the south side of the island.

Weifeng “Gordon” Zhang explains how his computer models can track variations in temperature, salinity and currents. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

In 2021, researchers seeded St. John’s south shore with coral larvae, and Zhang recorded their dispersal pattern. The data, combined with Mooney’s reef noise detection technology and research into the best possible coral growing substrate, may lead scientists to leverage the best coral growing conditions in natural conditions.

The information can also help to understand how coral disease spreads or why sargassum algae accumulate on certain beaches.

Perhaps the coolest device tested—at least from the perspective of the general public—is an underwater robot called CUREE, which stands for Curious Underwater Robot for Ecosystem Exploration.

CUREE is an autonomous underwater robot. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

Yogesh “Yogi” Girdhar, a computer scientist at WHOI, designed the robot to collect visual data from CUREE’s cameras and combine it with data from Aran Mooney’s devices to find patterns in reef habitats.

“CUREE is autonomous – nobody has to control it,” said Girdhar. The robot has tracking capabilities and can follow a fish over a long period of time, monitoring what it eats and where it goes.

Yogesh “Yogi” Girdhar explains the many functions of the underwater robot CUREE. (Photo by Amy H Roberts)

At the moment, Girdhar is trying to get the robot to learn the correct distance to track a fish and when to turn off the battery to minimize disturbance to marine life and save the time CUREE can work without charging.

The device is in progress. “Coral reefs are the most complex ecosystems,” Girdhar said. “The goal is to make it adaptable for studying marine animals in many environments,” and then ready it for production and distribution worldwide.

All ongoing research directly benefits marine scientists working on site at the Nature Conservancy and the University of the Virgin Islands.

Marilyn Brandt, a UVI researcher focused on coral disease, is working with Amy Apprill and Colleen Hansel to administer a $740,000 federal hurricane recovery grant to study coral growth and reef resilience methods to develop.

Part of the work will focus on artificial reefs. “It’s not so much that artificial reefs should replace natural reefs as there is an interest in incorporating them to speed rehabilitation and serve as havens while natural reefs recover from events like hurricanes,” said brand. “We want to create retreats for fish after a storm.”

Click here to see a short video showing more about WHOI’s coral research, including the use of the underwater robot.

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