Marine Science Faculty Publications

Using Remote Sensing to Reassess the Mass Mortality of Diadema Antillarum 1983-1984

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The 1983-1984 mass mortality of the sea urchin Diadema antillarum remains one of the most severe die-offs ever recorded in the Caribbean. Before 1983, the herbivore D. antillarum was pervasive on coral reefs in the region. Nine months after first detection of the mass mortality, 95% of the urchins had perished, and algal cover of coral increased between 100% and 250%. A water-borne pathogen was hypothesized as the causative agent, but it was never isolated. To date, surface current patterns have been used exclusively to explain both the cause and the distribution patterns of the mortality event. Using archived satellite images, we re-examined the water-borne pathogen hypothesis and investigated whether other mechanisms could also account for the dissemination pattern in some areas. In addition, archived satellite images were utilized to detect changes in coral reef reflectance. For infections in the Gulf of Mexico and Bermuda, satellite images confirm that surface currents are likely responsible for the distribution of the pathogen. For infections in the eastern Caribbean (Curacao, U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados), however, another mechanism, possibly ballast water exchange, must be considered because the surface current and infection patterns do not coincide. Changes in coral reflectance were detectable from Landsat thermatic mapping data before and after the mass mortality and correspond to the change in algal cover. Results from our study demonstrate the potential of satellite images for use in determining connectivity between regions of the Caribbean and in detecting changes in coral reef cover.

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Conservation Biology, v. 15, issue 4, p. 885-891