AI offers new approach to help cold-water corals

Research lives: ‍Dr Larissa Macêdo Cruz De Oliveira, post-doctoral researcher, University College Cork

Your research looks at cold-water coral environments, why are they important?

Cold-water corals, as their name suggests, can live in the deep cold waters of the sea. There are important cold-water corals off the coast of Ireland and my research is particularly on stony corals, which branch like a tree and can harbour and nurture other species. This makes them a hotspot of biodiversity in the deep-sea environment, but the corals are threatened by factors such as climate change, fishing and pollution.

What are you doing in your studies?

My PhD at UCC’s School of Biological Earth & Environmental Sciences looked at the environments where cold-water corals live. We used a remote-operated vehicle or ROV, which is an underwater robot, to take pictures and measurements of the deep ocean and canyons and mounds in the seabed.


Then we created a digital twin, or a virtual version of that environment. Using this information, we developed artificial intelligence to find out more about the corals that live there, and how they might react to changes in their environment.

How can that mapping and analysis help to protect corals?

If we understand the corals and their environment better, this can inform policies to protect ocean biodiversity. Our UCC project has built up a more detailed baseline of how the corals are now, and that means we can monitor them over time. Also the AI tools we developed can analyse data so we can find corals in other parts of the world, and look back over older data to see how things have changed.

Maybe people don’t realise what a rich environment the deep sea is because they can’t reach it

What is most fun about the research?

I think on a conceptual level, I get to explore the fundamental question I always asked as a child growing up in Brazil, which was, “How does that work?” Then practically, the most fun for me is going out on the research vessel to collect data. I felt so lucky to be able to work on the Marine Institute vessels like the RV Celtic Explorer, and to use the underwater technology to get data from the seabed.

What was the biggest challenge in your PhD?

Covid-19. It was a big challenge for everyone I guess. I was about a year into my PhD when the lockdowns and restrictions started. I had a lot of plans to go on conferences and internships, but we had to adapt. So it was a really big joy to be named Environmental Sciences Association of Ireland (ESAI) Postgrad of the Year 2022, just around the time when I was finishing up. I was delighted with the award.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research?

The saying “out of sight, out of mind” is very famous in deep-sea research. Maybe people don’t realise what a rich environment it is because they can’t reach it. At the UCC Department of Geography now I am working on ways to use digital reconstructions of deep-sea environments to create more ways for people to access and experience more of it, for example through virtual reality.

How do you take a break?

I love to read, and one of the books that helped me as I was finishing my PhD was about mindfulness and concentration, being present in the moment. That really helped when I was writing up my thesis, and that ended up being a great period of my PhD. I also enjoy running, and since I got my PhD in March I have been focusing on training over longer distances.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation