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How Lego could help save Singapore’s coral reefs

How Lego could help save Singapore’s coral reefs
Source: Wallace Woon/VICE

Scientists in an offshore research facility are rebuilding Singapore’s coral reefs with LEGO bricks, due to their flat, stable and durable surfaces for marine animals to settle on.

Could LEGO save Singapore’s endangered coral reefs?

Delicate and easily-damaged, coral reefs are home to many species of marine life and also play a part in reducing global warming. The third largest coral reef in the world is located in Singapore, where land reclamation and coastal development have caused it to deplete in recent years. Scientists from the National University of Singapore are now working on a way to use LEGO bricks to save the nation’s endangered coral reefs. 

The biologists report that the Lego bricks are very useful for their research and experiments, as they help them to rear small fragments of coral in their aquariums and to secure them wherever necessary. (Photo: Wallace Woon)
The coral fragments spend their initial growing-on period in the rearing tanks on Lego bricks donated by friends and colleagues. The biologists report that the Lego bricks are very useful for their research and experiments, as they help them to rear small fragments of coral in their aquariums and to secure them wherever necessary. (Photo: Wallace Woon) Source: Wallace Woon/VICE

Scientists Are Rebuilding Singapore’s Coral Reefs With Lego

In a makeshift saltwater nursery located on an offshore Singapore island, a vital scientific experiment is taking place involving corals and sea invertebrates, and the world famous Danish educational toy, LEGO bricks! 

“We needed to create flat and stable surfaces for the animals to rest on,” Neo Mei Lin, a leading marine biologist and senior research fellow from the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute explained to Heather Chen, for VICE“Detachable Lego bricks proved very useful in helping us to hold corals and giant clams in place.”  

This unorthodox yet ingenious approach has benefited Neo and her colleague Jani Tanzil, a fellow marine scientist at the Institute. Together they are spearheading an ambitious reef rejuvenation project to revitalise and restore Singapore’s coral populations, wrecked and damaged by decades of major land reclamation, coastal development, and sea port activity. 

“Land development harshly affects the sea,” Tanzil said. “As marine scientists, we have definitely seen the effects of that on our coastlines, mangroves and seagrass.” 

Source: VICE

Later on, before the corals are placed on a natural substrate in the sea, the two scientists remove the pieces of plastic to prevent the long-term release of microplastic particles into the sea. (Photo: Wallace Woon)
Coral fragments attached to Lego bricks are suspended by fishing lines over salt water tanks. Later on, before the corals are placed on a natural substrate in the sea, the two scientists remove the pieces of plastic to prevent the long-term release of microplastic particles into the sea. (Photo: Wallace Woon) Source: Wallace Woon/VICE

The bricks are useful for research and are used many times, in many ways, for many years

Working with government agencies such as the National Parks Board (NParks), Neo and Tanzil hope that their ambitious project will help increase the resilience of local coral populations and gradually expand reef surface area. 

“Climate change is moving faster than we can imagine but our coral reefs have proven to be much more resilient than we thought, having survived in marginal and highly urbanised environments,” Neo said. 

“Our coral reefs may not be as colourful or pretty as those in Australia or the Maldives, but they have certainly proven to be very resilient given the high levels of stress and pollution they’ve had to endure over the years, and that is a unique and very encouraging sign.” 

The LEGO bricks have been very useful for research and experiments in helping to grow out small coral fragments in the aquarium nurseries before transplanting the coral back into the sea. When the corals have grown and are ready to return to the ocean, the bricks are be removed and reused for other future projects.

“The good thing about Lego is that it’s very lasting — for better or for worse. The bricks are useful for our research and are used many times, in many ways, for many years,” Tanzil said.

However, the LEGO bricks are only a small piece of a bigger and more complicated puzzle. The reef restoration project is expected to take years due to complexities surrounding coral and its slow growth rate, along with a tendency to get stressed easily over changes in the environment.

Neo says, “Our coral reefs have not given up hope. As marine scientists, we should not give up on saving them, as well as the creatures that rely on them for life.”

Source: VICE

Marine conservation remains one of the most important parts of the project and Neo and Tanzil plan to raise more public awareness about Singapore’s coral reefs, as well as the “uncharismatic” sea creatures which inhabit them, like sea urchins, mollusks, and sea cucumbers, which are often overlooked in favor of more popular animals like clownfish, sharks, whales and otters.  (Photo: Wallace Woon).
Singaporean marine biologists Jani Tanzil and Neo Mei Lin. Marine conservation remains one of the most important parts of the project and Neo and Tanzil plan to raise more public awareness about Singapore’s coral reefs, as well as the “uncharismatic” sea creatures which inhabit them, like sea urchins, mollusks, and sea cucumbers, which are often overlooked in favor of more popular animals like clownfish, sharks, whales and otters. (Photo: Wallace Woon). Source: Wallace Woon/VICE

How about Lego bricks in a reef aquarium?

For reef aquarists, who regularly have to “garden” on their living-room reef and prune their stony corals, Reef2Rainforest pose the question of whether Lego bricks might not be the perfect way to vary the location of their fragments in the rearing tank by placing them on a matching Lego base plate?

Corals glued to Lego bricks could initially be placed close together to save space, and subsequently moved further apart on the base plate. In addition, the size of these artificial substrates is enormously variable and can be selected according to the coral genus and fragment size in question.

Even introduction into the aquarium could be simplified with the help of Lego bricks, by gluing a small, shallow, plate-like element firmly to the live rock or the reef ceramic, so that the coral, again on a Lego brick, can subsequently be simply pushed into place. 

The surface area of the Lego components can be selected according to coral size and the effect of the current. Initially, the coral could be removed effortlessly in order to reposition it, and later the Lego would be overgrown and concealed by the developing basal disk. 

Source: Reef2Rainforest

“Singapore has many green plans and goals but marine issues are often out of sight,” Tanzil said. “It’s easy to see why we should save marine creatures like dolphins and whales, but not many people realize that we first have to start with their habitats which are under threat from man-made activities,”  (Photo: Wallace Woon).
Singaporean marine biologist Jani Tanzil poses with “LEGO coral”. “Singapore has many green plans and goals but marine issues are often out of sight,” Tanzil said. “It’s easy to see why we should save marine creatures like dolphins and whales, but not many people realize that we first have to start with their habitats which are under threat from man-made activities,” (Photo: Wallace Woon). Source: Wallace Woon/VICE
Scientists in Singapore have come up with a novel way of restoring the island’s declining reefs - by using Lego blocks. “It was modular, it was scalable. If we wanted to work with larger pieces of coral, we just need to stick on more building blocks.” Source: Facebook/BBC
Make an Impact

8 EASY WAYS YOU CAN HELP CORAL REEFS

Coral reefs benefit almost 500 million people and provide habitat for 25% of all marine species, but they’re also the most threatened. Want to help? Nature.org share some simple, effective actions you can take to help save coral reefs and the fish, animals and plants that depend on them.