The world is constantly changing. This is having a huge impact on both human and animal ecosystems as we are all forced to adapt to changing surroundings. One of the largest changes taking place is the destruction of coral in our oceans. Scientists estimate that 50% of the world’s coral reef has already been destroyed and a further 40% could be gone in the next thirty years. This is threatening the health of our oceans and the habitats of many fish. Some ecologists think there is a solution available.
Danielle Dixson from the University of Delaware has used 3D printers to produce artificial coral reef structures that can be placed in ocean habitats where the coral has disappeared. While coral has many benefits that can’t be replicated by a 3D printer one that can is protection. These coral reef structures allow fish to have a safe place to hide from predators and to lay eggs. Without the protection of the coral, many fish in an ecosystem would not survive or not feel safe enough to lay eggs. Dixson found that by using cornstarch it was possible to print temporary structures.
To create the structures Dixson and her team needed to analyze coral today. What they found was that if a structure with too many branches was created fish would not be able to fit inside, if a structure with too few branches was created – predators would also be able to fit inside. Dixson decided that nature had the perfect solution in place and so tried to recreate it. Others don’t agree with this approach.
While nature is an incredible artist and builder – it can sometimes be improved on. In the early settlements of humans, we took shelter in caves, today we build houses. There are ecologists who argue that if we have 3D printers and the capability to create structures that are only limited by our imagination – we should not be satisfied with simply recreating what already exists.
Alex Jordan is what is described as an evolutionary biologist meaning that he looks at theories of evolution and studies living organisms and their habitats. He is looking at creating a wide range of structures to determine what suits these fish best. He has already done some work on this to date and found that fish don’t always like the natural option. Recently he created artificial shells for cichlids who use them as houses. When the fake shells were placed beside the natural ones, the cichlids all chose the false ones. The reason was simple. The artificial ones were bigger and the cichlids wanted a bigger home.
With this kind of thinking the question is what would coral fish like to live in? Has nature already provided the perfect solution or is there a dream home waiting to be discovered. Jordan says that the work has just begun to find out but that he has engineered many shapes to be tested. Things like metal sponges, large blocks, and strange hexagons all aimed to fit in with the local environment but meet the increased needs of the local life.
Jordan says that we are only at the beginning of what we can do in this space. He says that when you look at the ongoing climate change taking place our attitudes will soon have to change. Many of the coastal towns and cities that exist today could be underwater in fifty years’ time. While this is bad news for humans it is not good news for fish either. Jordan argues that in areas where we know we are going to lose the coast any construction should be done with a special material that works for humans now but will work for sea life in the future.