Have you ever thought about what corals smell like? Caitlin Lawson, Marine biologist at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, has made it her mission to collect the gaseous, smelly chemicals that corals release under different conditions with the hope that a deeper understanding of these compounds will provide a strategy to better assess the coral’s health.
Lawson was at the Great Barrier Reef last December and witnessed the mature corals spewing eggs and sperm in unison to create larvae. According to Lawson, the spectacle looks “like an underwater snowstorm.” She wasn’t there for the view, but rather to identify the volatile chemicals the corals produce during their procreative display.
Scientists have already been studying the volatile chemicals released by terrestrial organisms. They know, for instance, that a plant’s volatile emission might communicate the presence of an insect predator to nearby vegetation, and that dogs can detect the chemical smells of cancer and other diseases.
However, there’s a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the volatile chemicals released by underwater organisms. According to Debashish Bhattacharya, a coral genomics researcher at Rutgers University, the work that Lawson’s team is doing is “the first really high-quality documentation of the volatiles that are produced by corals.”
Lawson stresses that their work can potentially reveal the relationship between the different chemicals being released and various aspects of climate change. Detection of key volatile chemicals can also indicate signs of disease in other creatures, which could lead to researchers one day identify a specific volatile cocktail that signifies coral stress. This could be revolutionary for marine conservationists because currently, stress can only be monitored through visual markers like lesions, which means that can only act reactively to damage that’s already been done, rather than preventatively.
There’s also a lot to be learned about how corals and other underwater creatures might use volatiles to communicate. Lawson and her team are excited to be pioneering this area of study and hope to uncover a vast source of knowledge that we can utilize to more effectively protect our environment.