Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Marine Geology and Geophysics (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Gregor P. Eberli

Second Committee Member

Mark Grasmueck

Third Committee Member

Pamela Reid

Fourth Committee Member

John K. Reed


Scleractinian cold-water corals are widely distributed in seaways and basins of the North Atlantic Ocean, including the Straits of Florida. These corals can form extensive biogenic mounds, which are biodiversity hotspots in the deep ocean. The processes that lead to the genesis of such cold-water coral mounds and control their distribution and morphology are poorly understood. This work uses an innovative mapping approach that combines 130 km2 of high resolution geophysical and oceanographic data collected using an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) from five cold-water coral habitats in the Straits of Florida. These AUV data, together with ground-truthing observations from eleven submersible dives, are used to investigate fine-scale mound parameters and their relationships with environmental factors. Based on these datasets, automated methods are developed for extracting and analyzing mound morphometrics and coral cover. These analyses reveal that mound density is 14 mound/km2 for the three surveyed sites on the toe-of-slope of Great Bahama Bank (GBB); this density is higher than previously documented (0.3 mound/km2) in nearby mound fields. Morphometric analyses further indicate that mounds vary significantly in size, from a meter to up to 110 m in relief, and 81 to 600,000 m2 in footprint area. In addition to individual mounds, cold-water corals also develop in some areas as elongated low-relief ridges that are up to 25 m high and 2000 m long. These ridges cover approximately 60 and 70% of the mapped seafloor from the sites at the center of the Straits and at the base of the Miami Terrace, respectively. Morphometrics and current data analyses across the five surveyed fields indicate that mounds and ridges are not in alignment with the dominant current directions. These findings contradict previous studies that described streamlined mounds parallel to the northward Florida Current. In contrast, this study shows that the sites dominated by coral ridges are influenced by unidirectional flowing current, whereas the mounds on the GBB slope are influenced by tidal current regime. The GBB mounds also experience higher sedimentation rates relative to the sites away from the GBB slope. Sub-surface data document partially or completely buried mounds on the GBB sites. The sediments burying mounds are off-bank material transported downslope by mass gravity flow. Mass gravity transport creates complex slope architecture on the toe-of-slope of GBB, with canyons, slump scars, and gravity flow deposits. Cold-water corals use all three of these features as location for colonization. Coral mounds growing on such pre-existing topography keep up with off-bank sedimentation. In contrast, away from the GBB slope, off-bank sedimentation is absent and coral ridges grow independently of antecedent topography. In the sediment-starved Miami Terrace site, coral ridge initiation is related to a cemented mid-Miocene unconformity. In the center of the Straits, coral ridges and knobs develop over an unconsolidated sand sheet at the tail of the Pourtales drift. Coral features at the Miami Terrace and center of the Straits have intricate morphologies, including waveform and chevron-like ridges, which result from asymmetrical coral growth. Dense coral frameworks and living coral colonies grow preferentially on the current-facing ridge sides in order to optimize food particle capture, whereas coral rubble and mud-sized sediments accumulate in the ridge leesides. Finally, this study provides a method using solely acoustic data for discriminating habitats in which cold-water corals are actively growing. Results from this method can guide future research on and management of cold-water coral ecosystems. Taken together, spatial quantitative analyses of the large-scale, high-resolution integrated surveys indicate that cold-water coral habitats in the Straits of Florida: (1) are significantly more diverse and abundant than previously thought, and (2) can be influenced in their distribution and development by current regime, sedimentation, and/or antecedent topography.


Cold-water coral; Mound; Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV); Morphometrics; Straits of Florida