Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Marine Biology and Fisheries (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Diego Lirman

Second Committee Member

Margaret Miller

Third Committee Member

Joe Serafy

Fourth Committee Member

James Bohnsack

Fifth Committee Member

Don DeAngelis


The overarching objective of this dissertation was to improve our knowledge of the relationship between seascape heterogeneity and diversity of stony coral assemblages across spatial scales. Coral communities on patch reefs in three regions of the Caribbean were used as a model system to investigating this relationship because patch reef heterogeneity could be readily quantified within the seascape using remote sensing and image analysis techniques. I began with a theoretical approach, exploring the origins of observed species diversity among coral communities at increasing spatial scales. Hierarchical sampling and null models revealed that coral diversity was governed by non-random processes at local- (10s of meters) and meso- (100s of m) scales. Spatial autocorrelation and reef heterogeneity were then investigated as potential mechanistic drivers of these non-random diversity patterns. I found limited support for spatial drivers. However, beta diversity was significantly correlated to metrics of reef heterogeneity (measured as reef size, spatial configuration, and complexity), indicating that differences in reef heterogeneity were making a disproportionate contribution to the overall coral community diversity. The relationship between corals and reef heterogeneity was found to be both scale-dependent and region dependent. This theoretical approach was followed by a manipulative approach using an existing artificial patch reef array to experimentally test the influence of reef spatial configuration and topographical complexity on local diversity. Corals were most sensitive to reef size and secondarily reef configuration within the seascape. Unlike reef fishes, reef complexity did not emerge as a strong predictor of the coral community composition in either the observational data or the experimental manipulation. These observational and experimental explorations of the relationship between corals and habitat reveal that intra-habitat variability (i.e. differences between patch reefs) can influence the diversity and abundance of corals. I then focused on applying this improved theoretical understanding towards improving coral management efforts. I present a new methodology to assess the efficacy of marine reserve effects by controlling for natural seascape variation within and beyond the reserve boundary, and I quantified the bias of underestimating coral diversity by using conventional reef monitoring protocols that ignore differences in reef size. In conclusion, I demonstrate empirically that seascape attributes of reef heterogeneity can contribute to coral diversity at relatively small spatial scales (<1km) and can affect corals with different life history traits in different ways. Hence, management and conservation efforts must consider the role of these meso-scale spatial metrics to influence the structure of the coral assemblage at the local scale.


seascape heterogeneity; diversity; island biogeography; species area relationship; marine reserves