Variability of cold-water coral mounds in a high sediment input and tidal current regime, Straits of Florida

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Abstract

Cold-water coral mound morphology and development are thought to be controlled primarily by current regime. This study, however, reveals a general lack of correlation between prevailing bottom current direction and mound morphology (i.e. footprint shape and orientation), as well as current strength and mound size (i.e. footprint area and height). These findings are based on quantitative analyses of a high-resolution geophysical dataset collected with an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle from three cold-water coral mound sites at the toe of slope of Great Bahama Bank. The three sites (80 km2 total) have an average of 14 mounds km−2, indicating that the Great Bahama Bank slope is a major coral mound region. At all three sites living coral colonies are observed on the surface of the mounds, documenting active mound growth. Morphometric analysis shows that mounds at these sites vary significantly in height (1 to 83 m), area (81 to 6 00 000 m2), shape (mound aspect ratio 0·1 to 1) and orientation (mound longest axis 0 to 180°). The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle measured bottom current data depict a north–south flowing current that reverses approximately every six hours. The tidal nature of this current and its intermittent deviations during reversals are interpreted to contribute to the observed mound complexity. An additional factor contributing to the variability in mound morphometrics is the sediment deposition rate that varies among and within sites. At most locations sedimentation rate lags slightly behind mound growth rate, causing mounds to develop into large structures. Where sedimentation rates are higher than mound growth rates, sediment partially or completely buries mounds. The spatial distribution and alignment of mounds can also be related to gravity mass deposits, as indicated by geomorphological features (for example, slope failure and linear topographic highs) in the three-dimensional bathymetry. In summary, variability in sedimentation rates, current regime and underlying topography produce extraordinarily high variability in the distribution, development and morphology of coral mounds on the Great Bahama Bank slope.

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