We’ve all heard about coral bleaching, but how many of us know what that means, and why it occurs?
Zobi and the Zoox is a new illustrated book for children that explores coral bleaching from the perspective of the microscopic organisms that build and sustain coral reefs.
The book was produced by a group of artists and scientists, including writer Ailsa Wild, microbiologist Dr Gregory Crocetti, artist Aviva Reed, and artistic director Briony Barr.
The story takes place in and on Darian, a tiny, coral reef-building animal called a polyp. Even though Darian is tiny, inside him lives an entire ecosystem of other organisms that are crucial to his survival, like the zooxanthellae algae (known as Zoox) that give Darian his colour and and ability to harvest sunlight to provide a steady supply of food to support him.
The hero of the story is Zobi, a rhizobia bacterium that lives in Darian’s gut. She takes nitrogen from the water and turns it into a form that Darian and his friends can use to make amino acids and proteins.
Darian, Zobi and the Zoox survive through mutual assistance, a beneficial kind of symbiosis. They all work together in harmony – that is until the water heats up. The Zoox can’t handle the heat and they start to leave, and it’s up to Zobi to save the day.
This is the group’s second book, after the The Squid, the Vibrio and the Moon, the story of the symbiosis between the Hawaiian Bobtail squid and the bioluminescent bacteria, Vibrio fischeri.
The book’s artist, Aviva Reed, who is studying a Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne, says even though the book takes place almost entirely in and around one coral polyp, the story is “really epic”.
“I think it’s phenomenal what Ailsa did, in terms of breaking down this complex scientific idea from the viewpoint of a bacterium, and then creating the idea that the hero of the story is this rhizobium that keeps the coral alive long enough for it to be reinhabited by a new group (known technically as a clade) of zooxanthellae,” she says.
Ms Reed is passionate about using storytelling and art to inform and educate people about complex ecological processes, and motivate them to act on pressing environmental issues.
“You can read a science paper, but you’re not necessarily going to make an emotional connection. You’re not going to get nervous when the zoox leave,” she says.
“But it is nerve-wracking that the coral will be bleached forever. It’s huge.”
The book launched in March at ArtPlay, a children’s art space beside the Yarra River in Birrarung Marr, Melbourne. The event involved art activities for children and a panel discussion featuring scientists, artists, educators and a primary school student, Bodhi Harper.
At the event, Bodhi said she felt a real connection with the characters in the book.
“When I was reading the book, I felt like I was a piece of coral near Darian, and I was just watching all these little things and animals and little business going on in the mucus and inside Darian,” she says.
“I really felt like I was a part of it.”
Zobi and the Zoox is ultimately a story of survival, but it wasn’t always that way. The creators grappled with the idea of making it a tragedy.
Artistic Producer Briony Barr says the working title for the book was The End of the Rainbow.
“One of the approaches we thought might work would be to make it a tragedy. Zobi and everyone living with Darian would die, and so would the rest of the coral around the community,” says Ms Barr, who is an honorary fellow in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne.
After workshopping the story with a group of school children, the group chose a more upbeat ending and a title to match.
Zobi and the Zoox is the second book in the small friends series produced by the Scale Free Network, with funding from Arts Victoria, and through the crowdsourcing website Pozible.