According to the most recent publication by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project (CREMP) research team, it appears octocorals, commonly referred to as “soft corals” may be becoming the new dominant species on reefs throughout the Florida Keys. Octocorals seemingly have a resilience to disturbances, therefore, this shift toward octocoral dominance may have started long ago (R. Ruzicka et al., 2013). For decades, reef building scleractinian corals have been the primary focus of coral research. Like their reef building counterparts, octocorals provide essential habitat for a variety of organisms including several commercially important species. They are also responsible for considerable contribution to the build-up of reefs through the deposition of calcium carbonate spicules after they die (Bayer, 1961). In more recent years, octocorals have been studied as a potential source for pharmaceuticals such as cembranoids which can be used for antitumor research (Tello et al., 2013). However, unlike their reef building counterparts, very little is known about the ecology of octocorals and the implications of changes in populations over time.
Historically, there have been only a few studies which have captured species specific demographic data for octocorals in the Florida Keys. The earliest records of data collection on shallow-water octocorals in Florida date back as far as 1882 (Agassiz, 1882), with a few in the early 1900s (Cary, 1918). More extensive research on octocorals began in the late 1960s and early 1970s at which time several government entities began establishing long-term coral reef monitoring programs. These monitoring programs were responsible for bringing the degradation of reefs in Florida to the public forefront in the 1980s which eventually led to the establishment of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990 which includes 2800 square nautical miles of reef from Biscayne to Dry Tortugas (R Ruzicka et al.). However, the majority of the octocoral data collected by these programs was generalized as overall group abundance, or percent cover, and does not effectively represent the changes in octocoral populations over time.
The answers to key questions about reef morphology shifts and overall reef community dynamics may potentially be found through studying octocoral distribution patterns in relation to various environmental influences. The temporal and spatial variations in octocoral assemblages can most often be attributed to limiting factors including substrate availability, temperature, salinity, depth, currents, wave energy, and light intensity (Bayer, 1961). Additionally, episodic events such as cold-water events, black water events, bleaching events, and hurricanes have been documented to have detrimental impacts on the temporal and spatial variability of populations (Davis, 1982).
The objective of this paper is to identify historical events over the past 30 years which...