Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it?
Researchers from San Diego State Univ., the Getty Research Institute and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography created a computational method to assess the aesthetic value of coral reefs.
According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, coral reefs provide close to $30 billion each year in goods and services, including tourism and fisheries.
“Over the past decades the problem of coral reef degradation as a result of direct and indirect anthropogenic influences has been rigorously quantified,” the researchers write in PeerJ. “Monitoring protocols to assess the biogeochemical parameters of an ecosystem, which need to be conducted by trained specialists to provide reliable data, will not give account of one of the most valuable properties of coastal environments: their aesthetic appearance to humans.”
Attempts to find universally valid criteria for aesthetic principles have been made since antiquity, with Plato, Aristotle and Confucius, among others, waxing poetic on the topic. For this work, the researchers compiled a list of 109 visual features used to assess the aesthetic value of an image. The list included color, color intensity, texture and distribution of objects, among others. Next, the group created a computer program capable of assessing and scoring these features. Over the course of around 2,100 photographs, the program determined the aesthetic value of nine coral reef locations, each with varying degrees of human impact.
Interestingly, correlations existed between a reef’s aesthetic value and its health.
“Underwater, coral reefs surpass all other ecosystems in their display of color,” the researchers write. “The diversity and colorfulness of fauna and flora living in healthy reef systems is unmatched on this planet. This diverse and intense display of color is, however, not only an indicator of high biodiversity, but also of a ‘clean’ system.”
The researchers argue that aesthetic value is not purely subjective, and is linked with components of nature meant to indicate healthy or degraded states.
From a biological perspective, larger fauna populating a coral reef means the habitat can provide fruitfully for other apex predators, such as humans. Conversely, smaller objects suggest the ecosystem can’t provide resources for growth or a long life experience, the researchers argue.
Texture works along similar lines. “For living organisms the transgression of boundaries and the dissolution of a discernible surface texture signify much more than the mere loss of form: it comprehends the organism in a state of becoming and passing, ultimately in its mortality,” the researchers write.
Though the researchers acknowledge their application of numerical values to coral reefs based on visual aesthetics will prompt discussion, the new tool may provide reef stakeholders with the ability to enforce conservation measures to maintain visual appeal.