Can beauty be quantified? A study revealed that scientists can measure coral reef health through an analysis of the aesthetic quality of reefs or how beautiful they look.

Art historians and philosophers from all over the world and from different eras have been looking for ubiquitous and valid criteria that can measure ugliness and beauty. Now, a multidisciplinary team of experts was able to develop a new computational method that can assess what people regard as aesthetically pleasing. Their first application is the assessment of coral reefs.

The study, which was issued in the journal[pdf] Peerj, evaluated images of coral reefs and 109 aesthetic features present in the images. These features included relative color, size and location of noticeable objects in the image, as well as color intensity, diversity and texture of the image.

Through specifically-designed software, researchers analyzed about 2,000 images of coral reefs and compared them to the customary monitoring procedure known as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) score. The NCEAS score describes the increasing impact of humans on reefs.

Researchers then found links between the scores of random images of coral reefs and their corresponding reef ecosystem.

Andreas Haas, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral scholar from San Diego State University, said their findings suggest that how people perceive beauty is well-aligned with thriving and healthy ecosystems.

Haas explained that the perception of beauty is not entirely subjective, and that it is affected by natural components that show degraded or healthy conditions of an object.

He added that measuring the visual features of reef ecosystems is a cost-effective technique that targets their socioeconomic value which is their natural beauty.

Sue Sargent, a marine biologist, said previous methods for coral reef health assessment relied on researchers who were highly-trained for observation, but now that a new method has been developed, ordinary citizens could also perform reef monitoring through their computers. It could free up important research funding, she said.

"Many animals live in and around coral reefs, so it's crucial that we protect them from further harm," added Sargent.

The study is a collaborative effort between SDSU, the Getty Research Institute, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI), the Université de Paris-Saclay, the College of Charleston, and the University of Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, anyone can assess the aesthetic score of images by uploading them on a website created by the researchers.

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