Potential Habitat of Acropora Spp. on Florida Reefs

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Abstract

Elkhorn and staghorn corals (Acropora palmata, Acropora cervicornis) were listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. The decline of these species beginning in the late 1970s is unprecedented given the vital role they historically played as major builders of western Atlantic and Caribbean coral reefs. The goal of this study was to create potential-habitat maps for A. palmata and A. cervicornis that would show areas in which these species currently exist, as well as areas that would be suitable for their (re)establishment, using a database of reported in situ observations and existing mapped data. Using the mapped coral reef and hardbottom classifications throughout the Florida reef tract, potential-habitat maps were generated using buffers that incorporated 95% and 99% of reported observations of colonies of Acropora spp. The potential-habitat maps were produced based on benthic substrates throughout the Florida reef tract using GIS software. Locations of 99% of A. palmata observations and 84% of A. cervicornis observations coincided with previously mapped coral reef or hardbottom habitat. These results indicate that potential habitat for A. palmata is currently well defined and that potential habitat for A. cervicornis is more variable and has a wider range than that for A. palmata. This study provides a novel method of combining datasets at various geographic spatial scales and may be used to inform the current NOAA critical habitat map. One of the most important differences between the current NOAA critical habitat map and the new potential-habitat map is observed in the southeast Florida region, where A. cervicornis appears to be thriving outside of mapped reef areas and at latitudes considered marginal for hermatypic corals. Thus, the potential habitat extends further north than the previous critical habitat - and encompasses additional habitat for A. cervicornis and potentially for A. palmata.