Niche space of corals along the Florida reef tract
Over the last three decades corals have declined precipitously in the Florida Keys. Their population decline has prompted restoration effort. Yet, little effort has been invested in understanding the contemporary niche spaces of coral species, which could assist in prioritizing conservation habitats. We sought to predict the probability of occurrence of 23 coral species, including the critically endangered Acropora cervicornis, using observations at 985 sites from 2011–2015. We ran boosted regression trees to evaluate the relationship between the presence of these corals and eight potential environmental predictors: (i) bathymetry (m), (ii) mean of daily sea surface temperature (SST) (°C), (iii) variance of SST (°C), (iv) range of SST (°C), (v) chlorophyll-a concentration (mg m3), (vi) turbidity (m-1), (vii) wave energy (kJ m-2), and (viii) distance from coast (km). The Marquesas and the lower and upper Florida Keys were predicted to support the most suitable habitats for the 23 coral species examined. A. cervicornis had one of the smallest areas of suitable habitat, which was limited to the lower and upper Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas, and nearshore Broward-Miami reefs. The best environmental predictors of site occupancy of A. cervicornis were SST range (4–5°C) and turbidity (K490 between 0.15–0.25 m-1). Historically A. cervicornis was reported in clear oligotrophic waters, although the present results find the coral species surviving in nearshore turbid conditions. Nearshore, turbid reefs may shade corals during high-temperature events, and therefore nearshore reefs in south Florida may become important refuges for corals as the ocean temperatures continue to increase.