HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

David S. Gilliam, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Joana Figueiredo, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Tracey T. Sutton, Ph.D.


Acropora cervicornis, commonly known as the staghorn coral has historically been a major contributor to reef structural complexity, providing habitat for many functionally important fish species throughout Florida and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, due to disease, bleaching, and local anthropogenic stressors, A. cervicornis populations have suffered drastic declines that have negatively impacted associated reef fish populations. In order to promote recovery, A. cervicornis fragments can be cultivated in nurseries and outplanted back onto reefs. This practice can effectively increase A. cervicornis abundance, but the long-term effects on local fish assemblages, and specifically functionally important grazing fishes, has not been assessed. Fish assemblages at natural (control) sites were compared to outplanted A. cervicornis sites in Southeast Florida. Fish surveys were conducted each summer at four locations from 2012 to 2017. Each location contained three outplanted A. cervicornis and one or two control sites. Outplant sites were defined by 50 A. cervicornis colonies in a 36 m2 area. Control sites occupied the same area but did not contain outplanted colonies. The fish assemblage structure was assessed in terms of composition, demography, and functional temporal trends as well as with the increasing structural complexity of the outplanted corals, defined as total linear extension (TLE). Significant temporal trends were recorded for total fish abundance, grazer abundance, and diversity. Structural complexity (outplanted A. cervicornis measured in TLE m-2) was found to be a significant predictor of total fish abundance, grazer abundance and diversity. Fishes 2-5 cm total length were most numerous indicating that the outplant sites may be providing habitat for juvenile reef fishes, particularly algae consumers. These findings suggest that A. cervicornis restoration may be creating a positive feedback loop in which outplanted corals create habitat for grazing fishes that in turn reduce algae competition, potentially providing new habitat for coral settlement.