HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Nicole Fogarty

Second Advisor

Steven Miller

Third Advisor

Esther Peters


Since the 1970s, loss of herbivores, coral bleaching, pollution, and disease epidemics have reshaped the ecological framework of coral reefs. Staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis, was a major reef-building scleractinian coral found throughout Florida and the Caribbean that experienced unprecedented population declines primarily due to disease and coral bleaching. These two stressors are coupled; the highest coral disease prevalence occurs after periods of thermal stress caused by increased sea surface temperature. Previous research documented three disease-resistant A. cervicornis genotypes in Panama, but it is unknown if disease-resistant genotypes exist in the Florida Keys. Thermal tolerance has been found to be variable among different species of corals and is relatively unknown in A. cervicornis. To investigate disease resistance and thermal tolerance in corals collected from the Florida Keys, pathogen transmission, thermal tolerance experiments, and coral outplanting studies were conducted, along with histological work to assess the condition of coral tissues. Corals were challenged in situ with exposure to rapid tissue loss (RTL) and bleaching resistance was evaluated ex situ in temperature-controlled seawater tanks, using 39 A. cervicornis genotypes. Disease and bleaching were further characterized in the wild using outplanted colonies. In a pathogen transmission pilot study, 7 out of 39 genotypes developed signs of rapid tissue loss transmission. An expanded transmission experiment that used 12 potentially disease resistant genotypes (based on anecdotal information and results from the pilot study), all genotypes developed signs of RTL transmission. However, susceptibility was variable but not statistically different among genotypes (p>0.05), ranging from 40-100% transmission. Histological analyses revealed significant (p0.05) related to photosynthetic efficiency and tissue condition metrics. No significant differences in mortality, disease, or predation were found between disease resistant and disease susceptible genotypes in outplanting experiments (p>0.05). This study reports the first evidence that disease resistance is present in Florida A. cervicornis genotypes. The variability of disease resistance found within genotypes suggests that genotype is not the only factor influencing disease transmission. Short-term exposure to thermal stress revealed heat tolerant A. cervicornis genotypes, which corroborates with recent published studies. Taken together, these results provide insights into how Caribbean Acropora and other scleractinian species persist through multiple disease and coral bleaching events.


This research and student were supported in part by the National Science Foundation (OCE-1538469).