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Underwater Microscope Reveals "Kissing Coral"

Andrew Mullen deploys the BUM during coral reef studies in Maui. Credit: Emily L. A. Kelly/UC San Diego, CC BY-ND
Thursday, July 14, 2016

Researchers at the University of California have developed an underwater microscope that captures images of the sea floor and its inhabitants as tiny as one-hundredth of a millimeter. The Benthic Underwater Microscope, or BUM, employs miniature cameras and efficient LED lights to provide illuminated, focused, and stable underwater views of marine life.

The microscope has real-time recording capabilities and can be controlled by the diver via a computer interface. A squishy tunable lens allows divers to rapidly focus on objects with three-dimensional relief in focus. The microscope is equipped with one housing system for the camera, lights, and lens and another for the computer which controls the camera, a live diver interface and data storage.

The researchers tested the microscope in California as well as in the Red Sea near Eilat, Israel. During testing, the microscope uncovered never-before-seen views of coral polyps "kissing" to share food.  The microscope also provided a glimpse into how coral colonies work together to wage chemical warfare against their enemies and other species of coral. The researchers were also able to get microscale views of algae colonizing bleached corals in Hawaii.

It is anticipated that the microscope will be used to investigate questions such as how kelp propagate, how corals and algae compete, and how coral diseases progress. Future improvements to the microscope such as better resolution and frame rates and exciting applications in virtual reality are also envisioned. 

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