HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Nicole D. Fogarty, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Ronald Hill, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Lisa Greer, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Bernhard Riegl, Ph.D.


Since the 1980’s, there has been an unprecedented decline in the reef-building Caribbean corals, Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata, which has led to their listing as “threatened” under the U.S Endangered Species Act. Despite this protective status, these Acropora species continue to experience declines primarily attributed to disease, global climate change, and storm damage. Recent evidence suggests the hybrid of these threatened species (A. prolifera) is found at abundances similar to or higher than the parental species at many sites throughout the Caribbean. However, there is still much that is unknown as to how and why hybrids may be increasing in abundance at select sites.

In 2007, scientists from NOAA NMFS established 9 permanent transects at three sites in the USVI to quantify fish diversity and coral tissue condition in A. cervicornis thickets. Over the years, they observed that A. prolifera seemed to be increasing in abundance on transects that were once dominated by A. cervicornis. This dataset provided a unique opportunity to investigate whether a shift from a threatened parental species to its hybrid may have occurred. This study has two objectives, (1) to quantify the change in A. cervicornis and A. prolifera percent cover and colony health over a 9-year period, and (2) to compare the genotypic diversity among the three Caribbean acroporids on and near the transects to determine the primary method of propagation, i.e., sexual versus asexual. For this study, I used transect photographs taken in March, July and November 2009, April 2012, and August 2017 to compare intra- and interannual variation in acroporid cover and colony health.

Striking losses were observed in A. cervicornis cover between March 2009 and August 2017. At Thatch Cay, A. cervicornis declined from 25.7% to 8.9% between March 2009 and November 2009, but remained stable (10.2%) up to August 2017. Acropora cervicornis cover declined from 13.2% to 0% at Lovango Cay, and from 8.2% to 0% at No-Name Bay. At the one site (No-Name Bay) that A. prolifera was present during the original surveys of the transects, the percent cover remained relatively high and stable over the sample period. At No-Name Bay, A. prolifera percent cover (18.2%) was significantly higher than A. cervicornis (5.4%) by November 2009. It appears that A. prolifera expanded in the habitat left void by the decline in A. cervicornis. The general health of A. cervicornis based on the amount of healthy versus white and pale tissue appeared to decline at all sites between March 2009 and November 2009. To determine if the high percent cover on some transects was derived from asexual propagation or sexual recruitment, 139 tissue samples were collected in 2017 and genotyped using five microsatellite markers. No significant difference in genotypic richness (number of unique genotypes divided by the sample size) was observed among A. cervicornis (0.62), A. prolifera (0.64), and A. palmata (0.68). This suggests that the hybrid colonization is from multiple sexually derived individuals, not just asexual propagation from a rare hybridization event. High genotypic diversity, stable population abundance, and healthier colonies, suggest acroporid hybrids may become the primary habitat building coral of shallow reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Due to considerable differences in morphologies between A. cervicornis and A. prolifera, it is unclear how a shift to the hybrid may affect the organisms that occupy acroporid structure and if the same ecological functions can be fulfilled.