Andrew D. Mullen; Gif by Marisa Gertz for TIME
By Marisa Gertz
July 14, 2016

Although corals look like a plant, they are actually animals, made up of thousands of individual polyps living together in a colony. Because of their small size, scientific observation of them has been difficult, if not impossible outside of a lab.

Now, Andrew Mullen and Tali Treibitz from the University of California San Diego have developed a new way to observe coral colonies in their natural habitat. The Benthic Underwater Microscope (BUM) allows divers to capture photos of corals over time without removing samples to be studied in a lab, as they demonstrated in a paper published in Nature on July 12th.

They used the BUM in the Gulf of Eilat at the northern tip of the Red Sea to observe corals feeding, fighting, sharing, and even ‘kissing’, a previously unobserved behavior.

As coral bleaching threatens the world’s reefs, they hope that the instrument will be an important tool in understanding how corals work in the complex and constantly changing environment of the sea floor.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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