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Dental Intraoral Scanners Aid Coral Reef Research


Found in oceans across the globe, coral has proven time-consuming for scientists to measure and study. As many coral reefs are in decline due to pollution, erosion and climate change, scientists are working diligently to ensure the survival of these key ecosystems, and simple methods for measuring their size and health would support these efforts. According to research published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, the intraoral digital scanner — a mainstay of dental offices — provides a quick and effective means of surveying coral size and growth, reducing the time needed for such tasks by 99%.

Recognizing the similarities between coral and teeth — both being calcium-based and requiring measuring tools designed for wet surfaces — Kate Quigley, PhD, a senior research scientist at the Minderoo Foundation, has developed a nondestructive technique that uses intraoral scanners to rapidly scan coral. This discovery represents a significant improvement over previous labor-intensive surveying methods. Understanding the critical life stages of juvenile coral allows scientists to predict ecosystem changes, the impacts of disturbances, and the reefs’ potential for recovery. 

Reporting in the paper, “A Fast, Precise, In-Vivo Method for Micron-Level 3D Models of Corals Using Dental Scanners,” Quigley, who conducted the research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University, notes that it takes less than three minutes to scan and build a model of each individual coral, compared to more than four hours with previous techniques. 

Reconstructing three-dimensional coral models provides insights into coral health and response to stressors, such as rising temperatures and acidification. “For the first time, scientists will be able to measure thousands of tiny corals fast, accurately and without negative impacts,” she says. “This has the potential to expand large-scale monitoring of ocean health and support the upscaling of current efforts to restore coral reefs globally.”

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