scientific thesis |
Little is known about the distribution of black corals in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Of thirty-nine species of black coral documented in the Western Atlantic, thirty have been previously documented by various studies in the Gulf of Mexico. This study proposes potential range extensions for four black coral species, including Stichopathes gracilis, Stichopathes semiglabra, Tanacetipathes paula, and Tanacetipathes spinescens, to include the Gulf of Mexico. The validation of in situ identifications of black coral species is evaluated, and recommendations for species identifications and species groupings are made. Black coral associated fauna are documented, supporting known associations and documenting potentially new associations and species. Habitat suitability models for the distribution of black coral species at selected banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico were generated. Presence-only models made using the MaxEnt modeling program were compared to presence-absence models made using Boosted Regression Tree modeling techniques. Presence-absence models were documented to have greater predictive accuracy than the presence-only models, which showed evidence of model overfitting. The model was projected to five similar salt-dome features in the region, highlighting extensive habitat for multiple black coral species in these unexplored habitats. This study presents habitat suitability maps as a testable hypothesis for black coral distribution in the mesophotic zone of this region.