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New maps, new information: Coral reefs of the Florida keys

January 1, 2006

A highly detailed digitized map depicts 22 benthic habitats in 3140.5 km2 of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Dominant are a seagrass/lime-mud zone (map area 27.5%) throughout Hawk Channel and seagrass/carbonate-sand (18.7%) and bare carbonate-sand (17.3%) zones on the outer shelf and in The Quicksands. A lime-mud/seagrass-covered muddy carbonate-sand zone (9.6%) abuts the keys. Hardbottom communities (13.2%) consist of bare Pleistocene coralline and oolitic limestone, coral rubble, and senile coral reefs. Smaller terrestrial (4.0%) and marine habitats, including those of live coral (patch reefs, 0.7%), account for the rest (13.7%) of the area. Derived from aerial photomosaics, the seabed dataset fits precisely when transposed onto a newly developed National Geophysical Data Center hydrographic-bathymetry map. Combined, the maps point to new information on unstudied seabed morphologies, among them an erosional nearshore rock ledge bordering the seaward side of the Florida Keys and thousands of patch-reef clusters aligned in mid-Hawk Channel. Preliminary indications are that the ledge may represent the seaward extent of the 125-ka Key Largo and Miami Limestone that form the keys, and the patch reefs colonized landward edges of two noncoralline, non-dune-ridge topographic troughs. The troughs, their substrate, and inner-shelf location along the seaward side of the Hawk Channel bedrock depression are the first of that type of nuclei to be recognized in the Florida reef record. Together, the map datasets establish the efficacy and accuracy of using aerial photographs to define in extraordinary detail the seabed features and habitats in a shallow-reef setting.