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Free Content A Century of Natural Change in Coral Distribution at the Dry Tortugas: A Comparison of Reef Maps from 1881 and 1976

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Changes in coral reef structure and composition at Dry Tortugas, Florida were compared over a 95-year interval from benthic maps prepared in 1881 and 1976. Living hermatypic corals occupied less than 4% of the 23,000-hectare area mapped, and showed little change in area during the interval between maps. However, major changes in coral species distributions and reef types were apparent. In 1976, a lush 220-hectare Acropora cervicornis reef occupied what had been octocoral dominated hard bottom in 1881. The 44-hectare swath of A. palmata on the reef crest in 1881 was reduced to two small patches totaling less than 600 m2 in 1976. More than 90% of the extensive thickets of A. cervicornis at Dry Tortugas were killed during the winter of 1976–77, apparently as a result of thermal shock. These changes in coral distribution and abundance demonstrated the natural dynamic nature of coral reefs, and showed the important role occasional short-term extreme climatic events can play in shaping coral reef structure and species distribution. The importance of protecting living corals and the value of ecosystem level sanctuaries as dynamic standards are discussed.

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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 1982-04-01

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  • The Bulletin of Marine Science is dedicated to the dissemination of high quality research from the world's oceans. All aspects of marine science are treated by the Bulletin of Marine Science, including papers in marine biology, biological oceanography, fisheries, marine affairs, applied marine physics, marine geology and geophysics, marine and atmospheric chemistry, and meteorology and physical oceanography.
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