Song of the sea

Can you tell a reef's health based on its song? This computer program can

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

Left: Tim Lamont, University of Exeter, Right: The Ocean Agency

The visual difference between a healthy coral reef and a degraded one is striking.

The sounds of healthy and unhealthy reefs are different, too — but for an untrained ear, they’re not as easy to decipher.

Can you hear the difference between a healthy reef and a degraded reef?

Give it a try:

The Ocean Agency

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

Did you guess right?

Reef 1 was degraded, and Reef 2 was healthy. If this feels like a trick question, know that the noise both make is similar — but to a trained ear, there are important distinctions.

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

Researchers can use reef soundscapes to monitor health conditions over time. Typically, they spend hours sorting through the data manually.

But in a study published last week in the journal Ecological Indicators, researchers in the United Kingdom and Indonesia developed a more efficient way to evaluate coral reefs using their soundscape.

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

The researchers trained artificial intelligence to listen to the sounds of different reefs and detect extremely subtle variations in their audio.

Hydrophones, or underwater listening devices, were placed on reefs to collect sounds.

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

The researchers trained the AI to predict reef health using their recording data.

The program correctly classified the health of reefs over 91 percent of the time using just audio recordings.

Tim Lamont, University of Exeter

An AI program that quickly and accurately determines reef health is a boon to monitoring and conservation efforts, the researchers say.

"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.”

Tim Lamont, study co-author, in a statement.

The Ocean Agency