19 April 2018
Researchers from UQ and QUT interviewed participants after their 'underwater experience', and developed far-reaching implications for future monitoring of reef aesthetics. Photo: QUT
Researchers from UQ and QUT interviewed participants after their 'underwater experience', and developed far-reaching implications for future monitoring of reef aesthetics. Photo: QUT

Researchers have discovered a new way to exploit the cost-saving potential of virtual reality to gauge human perceptions of reef beauty.

While reef scientists typically monitor ecosystem health indicators such as temperature, salinity and acidity, several easily observed aesthetic qualities are equally valid, although until now science has lacked the appropriate tools to quantify these characteristics.

It has long been a UNESCO requirement to monitor aesthetic values of the Great Barrier Reef, but it has proven difficult for scientists to measure ‘reef beauty’ because many people describe almost anything associated with a reef as beautiful.

After 'immersing' people with varying underwater experience in a virtual coral reef setting, researchers from UQ and QUT were able to interview the participants and propose several far-reaching implications for future monitoring of reef aesthetics.

During a study led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, the researchers quantified that high structural complexity of coral reefs and colour diversity tended to increase their aesthetic value, although colour alone is not considered an indicator of reef health.

UQ Global Change Institute postdoctoral research fellow Dr Julie Vercelloni said marine scientists generally regarded structurally complex reefs as healthy reefs because they provided a diverse array of habitats.

And while survey participants with little or no marine science or diving experience were less likely to be aware of this relationship, they still found structurally complex reefs more aesthetically pleasing.

“Thus the structural complexity may be a good indicator of aesthetic value and reef health, irrespective of who is observing a coral reef,” Dr Vercelloni said.

“Although people tend to prefer colourful reefs, the relationship between coral-colour diversity and coral health is not straightforward.

“The Coral Watch citizen-science program, for example, measures coral colour using a coral health chart to assess the degree of bleaching in coral colonies

“However we know that fluorescing coral in the initial stages of bleaching display intense colours, while other colourful reef organisms such as sponges and soft corals are often prevalent in stressed coral ecosystems.

“Colour diversity and intensity can inform management and conservation with respect to aesthetic services, but the lack of a broad-based relationship between reef colour and health means it’s not the complete story,” she said.

Global Change Institute director Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said this work was unique and one of the first studies to explore how people viewed coral reefs.

"Understanding this is important to their preservation long-term.

“What is fascinating about the results is that different people see the value and beauty of coral reefs in different ways. This type of research is really important in terms of making the case for why we should preserve coral reefs,” he said.

The researchers highlighted that virtual reality combined with modern statistical modelling were being applied to monitor other remote ecosystems around the world which were difficult or expensive to access.

They also suggested that virtual reality could eventually play an important role in helping to increase the public’s understanding of environmental pressures on coral reefs.

The availability of 360-degree reef images recorded by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, working with mariine scientists from the UQ Global Change Institute, has inspired a fresh trove of citizen science projects at reefs sites around the world.

“This is a great way to use the thousands of images that are available to scientists and the public through the Global Reef Record at The University of Queensland," Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

The research “Using virtual reality to estimate aesthetic values of coral reefs” has been published by the journal Royal Society Open Science.  Authors: Julie Vercelloni, Sam Clifford, M. Julian Caley, Alan R. Pearse, Ross Brown, Allan James, Bryce Christensen, Tomasz Bednarz, Ken Antony, Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero, Kerrie Mengersen and Erin E. Peterson.


Dr Julie Vercelloni, Email: j.vercelloni@uq.edu.au

UQ Global Change Institute Communications:  gcicomms@uq.edu.au or 61-7 0438 285 283

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