HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. Oceanography/Marine Biology

First Advisor

David S. Gilliam

Second Advisor

Nicole D. Fogarty

Third Advisor

Kathleen S. Lunz

Fourth Advisor

Bernhard M. Riegl


Historically, Acropora cervicornis was found in high densities on many Caribbean, Florida, and Gulf of Mexico reefs. A disease outbreak in the late 1970s and 80s caused up to 99% loss of A. cervicornis cover at some sites, leaving populations sparsely distributed throughout its range and typically found as isolated colonies. Even though populations are depauperate causing a decrease in sexual reproduction, its fast growth rate and ability to reproduce through asexual fragmentation affords this species the potential for quick recovery and population growth. However, limited to no natural recovery has been documented. Many of these populations are poorly studied because most monitoring programs are not designed to capture A. cervicornis’ unique life history characteristics. Its patchy distribution, complex growth form, frequent fragmentation, and dislodgment present a challenge for long term tracking. Furthermore, its ability to exist from small isolated colonies to semi-continuous patches spanning hectares makes defining individuals to assess abundance, survival, health, and growth a difficult task. The aim of this dissertation was to develop a species-specific monitoring protocol to describe the abundance and cover of A. cervicornis and the effects of disease, predation, and disturbance events across space and time. The monitoring protocol was developed and used across three sub-regions of the Florida Reef Tract (Broward County, Middle Keys, and Dry Tortugas). Several permanent 3.5 m radial plots were installed across multiple sites in each sub-region. A species census, percent cover, and demographic data of a sub-set of colonies were collected three times per year (winter, summer, and fall) from 2008-2016. These results were then used to assist in designing and testing optimal outplant strategies. Outplanting occurred at seven sites in Broward County, FL between 2012- 2015. Experiments were designed to assess the effects outplant colony density, host genotype, colony size, and attachment technique had on colony survival, growth, and health. The monitoring protocol was successfully used for identifying spatial and temporal patterns and trends in cover, disease, and predation on A. cervicornis across a range of population sizes. Percent cover of living A. cervicornis declined significantly during the duration of the project. Disease prevalence and occurrence was highest during the summer. Colony size and volume increased with depth and were the largest in the Broward County sub-region. Disease caused the most mortality, however fireworms were the most prevalent cause of recent mortality. Disease and predation were more prevalent on masses (individuals larger than 1.5 m in diameter). The outplant experiments showed that colony survival and health were greatest when colonies had greater than 15 cm in total tissue and in densities less than 1 col/m2. Host genotype and outplant site had variable effects on survival and growth. Outplanted colonies quickly acclimated to their environment and increased colony abundance within sites by fragmentation. Prevalence of disease and predation were lower on outplanted colonies than wild colonies. Frequent disturbances such as tropical storms, hurricanes, and disease events caused increased, prolonged, and widespread mortality and fragmentation, however periods void of disturbances resulted in recovery and growth. Therefore, reducing the effects of climate change and determining and decreasing the causes of disease could promote species recovery. In the meantime, population enhancement by outplanting is a viable way to assist species conservation and recovery.