Application of structure-from-motion photogrammetry to quantify coral reef structural complexity change following a mass mortality event




Bruce, Kevin

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Hermatypic, or reef-building, corals (Order Scleractinia) are the foundation of coral reefs, providing a diversity of structurally complex habitats for the myriad species in these biologically diverse ecosystems. However, both local and global anthropogenic stressors threaten the persistence of these corals. For this thesis, thirty 16m2 permanent photoquadrats at 10 shallow forereef sites around Kiritimati (Christmas Island, Republic of Kiribati) were monitored across a four-year study encompassing the 2015-2016 El Niño derived marine heatwave, and subsequent mass coral mortality event. Sites were exposed to either low, medium, or high levels of local anthropogenic disturbance. My objective herein was to examine the effects of a mass coral mortality event on reef structural complexity, from the end of the event to three years afterwards. To do so, I digitally quantified six metrics of structural complexity for each photoquadrat sampled across three resolution scales for each of the five expeditions. Plots from 2015, 2017, and 2019 were later annotated based on the morphological structure present. I found that while significant declines in multiple of habitat metrics occurred by the end of the heatwave, no further significant declines occurred thereafter. However, this trend was lost as resolution scale increased, indicating the trends seen in the habitat metrics at 1.0 cm were likely documenting the shift from live coral towards abiotic dominated reefs. Anthropogenic disturbance compounded the El Niño’s effect, ensuring high disturbance sites had the lowest structural complexity values throughout the study. Lastly, live branching, tabulate, foliose, and submassive coral morphologies were found to be most closely associated with the different habitat complexity metrics. These results highlight the importance live coral structure has on reef structural complexity, illustrate the importance of model resolution when quantifying trends in structural complexity, pinpoint coral morphologies creating reef structural complexity, and further emphasize the need to limit the effects of local anthropogenic disturbance on coral reefs.



climate change, coral reef structural complexity, marine heatwave, multiple stressors, SfM photogrammetry