HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

Second Degree Name

M.S. Marine Environmental Sciences


Oceanographic Center

First Advisor

Bernhard Riegl

Second Advisor

Steven Miller

Third Advisor

David Gilliam


Over the last 40 years, the Caribbean has lost half of its live coral cover, mostly in the form of Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata, due to disease, bleaching from rising water temperatures, and other stressors. To help restore these corals to reefs in Florida, the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) created nearshore nurseries and transplanted over 30,000 acroporid colonies across the Florida Keys. The objective of this thesis was to evaluate the growth, survivorship, and condition of nursery-raised A. cervicornis colonies that were part of two transplant projects: 1) photographic analyses of 17 past CRF transplant projects over the last seven years; and 2) a transplant experiment at Little Conch Reef to additionally assess the effects of depth, colony density, and the genetic composition of transplants. The photographic analyses included 2,428 individual colonies, 38 genotypes, and six reefs from 2007 to 2013. Results from the photographs were combined with one in situ monitoring effort that used SCUBA in 2014. In the Little Conch Reef experiment, 1,288 colonies from 14 genotypes were transplanted in October and November, 2013 at two depths (5m and 12m) in either cluster or thicket configurations. At each depth, clusters comprised 14 colonies, each placed within in 1m diameter radius, with ten monogenetic and six multigenetic structures. Thickets were 3.5m by 1.5m in size, with 10 colonies from each genotype forming its own subunit within the larger configuration. In June 2014, 963 additional colonies were added to the shallow site by stacking them on top of six existing clusters and one thicket to evaluate whether larger three-dimensional structures affected growth or survival. The Little Conch Reef experiment was monitored through January 2015. Results from the photographic analyses were: 1) maximum size of A. cervicornis transplants was approximately 40cm in diameter; 2) mortality increased after approximately two years; 3) despite high mortality, some colonies survived the duration of each project; and 4) frequent and long-term monitoring is required to assess factors that affect survival and condition. Results from the Little Conch Reef experiment suggest: 1) maximum skeletal diameter was unaffected by any of the treatments; 2) percent survival and percent live tissue were higher at the shallow site compared to the deep site, and similarly, the clusters outperformed the thickets, and multigenetic clusters outperformed their monogenetic counterparts; 3) location within the shallow site had an impact on survival and condition, with clusters doing better on the south side than on the north; and 4) stacking did not positively impact growth, survival, or condition. In general, the sizes and condition of natural populations of A. cervicornis throughout the Florida Keys are similar to results from both experiments and with other transplant projects conducted in the Caribbean. Remarkably, despite high mortality in nearly all of the projects, small numbers of colonies transplanted for most projects, a few colonies survived to 2014/2015. These colonies have the potential to act as a “seed population” that might produce sexually dispersed larvae better adapted at surviving mortality events and asexual fragments that may be better acclimated to the stressors related to their location. Evidence of persistence in this species and expansion northward in Florida suggest that it is too early to consider coral reefs a lost cause, and that coral restoration holds promise for enhancing recovery of A. cervicornis.


Funding for this project was generously provided by NOAA grant number NA13NMF4630144 and the Coral Restoration Foundation.

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