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Exploring Cold-Water Coral Ecosystems

Voyis provided its Insight Micro laser scanner for an expedition to the Galápagos Islands to explore and document the cold-water coral ecosystems, renowned for their unique biodiversity Feature Article by Voyis
Exploring Cold-Water Coral Ecosystems
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Voyis has worked with the Memorial University of Newfoundland on a scientific expedition to the Galápagos Islands. View the 3D model here >>

This initiative, led by Chief Scientist Katleen Robert, represents a groundbreaking effort to explore and document the enigmatic world of cold-water coral ecosystems thriving on the cliffs of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was funded by Schmidt Ocean Institute, and with the participation of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park.

The Galápagos Islands, renowned for their unique biodiversity, are home to a multitude of cold-water corals, including those residing in vertical habitats. These deep-dwelling corals, shrouded in mystery due to their inaccessibility, hold vital ecological significance.

The expedition, which took place from September 18th to October 19th, 2023, was equipped with advanced technology, including Voyis’ Insight Micro laser scanner, to unlock the secrets of these vertical coral reefs.

Cold-water corals on cliffs have long presented challenges to researchers due to their depth and inaccessibility to ship-based sensors. The Insight Micro laser scanner, known for its capability to capture high-resolution 3D data and crisp still images with low power consumption, played a pivotal role in overcoming these obstacles.

The Galápagos Marine Reserve, one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, ensures that these coral ecosystems have remained untouched by destructive human activities. This pristine environment provided an unprecedented opportunity for Chief Scientist Katleen Robert and her team to study undisturbed ecosystems. The resulting baseline data was shared with local colleagues and used in regional conservation efforts.

While tropical and shallow-water corals are well-documented, cold-water corals constitute approximately half of the global coral population. Yet, the vertical environments where many thrive remain largely unexplored.

This knowledge gap, especially in the southern hemisphere, underscores the significance of this expedition in contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of global coral ecosystems.

Cold-water corals, which lack symbiotic algae found in shallow-water corals, rely on passing currents for sustenance. The team’s research shed light on the intricate relationship between water column dynamics, physical reef features, and coral survival.

Additionally, the connection between geology and coral fine-scale distribution was examined to better comprehend the environmental conditions shaping these vertical reefs.

The heart of this expedition lay in the deployment of the ultra-high-resolution laser scanner, which created a detailed 3D reconstruction of the coral habitat, including cliff morphology and biological layers.

Using the ROV SuBastian as a survey vehicle, the team mapped these vertical reefs with impressive precision, allowing for the study of organism distribution, biodiversity, coral growth, and the identification of individual species. This digital reconstruction provided accessible insights for scientists and the public alike.

The insights gained from this expedition aimed not only to advance our understanding of these understudied ecosystems, but also to provide a critical reference point for evaluating human impact and shaping future conservation efforts.

Voyis is honored to have contributed its cutting-edge technology, the Insight Micro laser scanner, to support this vital research mission in the Galápagos Islands.

All image credits: expedition FKt230918 funded by the Schmidt Ocean Institute with participation of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park.

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