Discovery Files

Reef halos may enable coral telehealth checkup worldwide

Coral reef halos: Bands of bare, sandy seafloor surround coral patch reefs

Coral reef halos, also known as grazing halos or sand halos, are bands of bare, sandy seafloor that surround coral patch reefs. These features, clearly visible from satellite imagery, may provide a window into reef health around the world, according to a U.S. National Science Foundation-supported study by scientists at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

"This study demonstrates how valuable it is to have access to geospatial data spanning long time periods, especially in understanding ecosystem-wide impacts from human activities like fishing," said Cynthia Suchman, a program director in NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences.

Scientists have observed reef halos for decades, mostly in the tropics, and explained their presence as the result of fish and invertebrates, who typically hide in a patch of coral, venturing out to eat algae and seagrass that cover the surrounding seabed. But the fear of predators keeps these smaller animals close to the safety of the reef — and focused on eating the marine plants nearby.

In the study, published in The American Naturalist and led by Elizabeth Madin, the team analyzed high-resolution satellite imagery and historical aerial imagery from the 1960s from around the globe. The researchers documented the previously undescribed presence of halos outside of the tropics surrounding seagrass reefs and revealed the timescales over which coral reef halos change, merge and persist.

"We found that halos, a fascinating phenomenon occurring on coral reefs worldwide, are much more common around the world than we would have expected," said Madin. "We also see that they are quite dynamic. Halos can change in size over relatively short timescales, on the order of months, despite persisting for at least half a century, which is as long as we could go back in time with aerial imagery."

Reef halos have been associated with marine reserves designed to protect predator and herbivore species from being overfished. Previous research indicated that halo presence is a potential indicator of predator — and possibly herbivore — recovery from fishing, and that halo size is likely indicative of herbivore recovery.

"Once we've been able to decode the clues that halos are giving us about the health of coral reef ecosystems, specifically in terms of the health of populations of plant- and fish-eating reef fishes, we plan to develop a tool that will allow scientists, reef managers, conservation practitioners and others to remotely and cheaply survey coral reefs and understand how they're doing," said Madin.

"This approach will never fully replace underwater reef monitoring but would provide a first-cut idea of how reefs are faring over much larger spatial and temporal scales than we can possibly achieve with traditional underwater surveys."