Date of Award

Spring 3-2023

Degree Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Ocean Science and Engineering

Committee Chair

Davin Wallace

Committee Chair School

Ocean Science and Engineering

Committee Member 2

Leonardo Macelloni

Committee Member 2 School

Ocean Science and Engineering

Committee Member 3

Randy Clark


Mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) are among the seafloor ecosystems that have been poorly studied throughout the world’s oceans, but they are a vital and diverse ecosystem that should be prioritized for future mapping and ecological studies. Priority should be given to them because they possess natural, social, and economic values, and face a variety of threats, all of which, if not better understood will result in the loss of this unique ecosystem. Insights into these ecosystems, among other deep-sea environments, are lacking due to difficulty accessing them, inherent lag between data collection by an autonomous system and observation by a scientific team, and the vastness of the seafloor. The Gulf of Mexico, a geologically complex environment, has demonstrated the characteristics needed to support MCEs, with reefs such as the Pinnacle Reefs, Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS), the Florida Middle Ground reef system, and Pulley Ridge already identified. Mountain Top Bank (MTB), a hardground feature 60-150 m below the sea surface, is a mesophotic reef site off the coast of Mississippi, USA. As it is poorly understood, it is the focus of this study. Bathymetry, backscatter, and photographic ground truthing data were collected by autonomous surface and underwater vehicles (ASV, AUV) and compiled into ArcGIS software to produce a benthic habitat map (BHM) and geodatabase of this site. These data were used to correlate fish and macroinvertebrate presence and abundance with habitat features within a transect atop MTB. This analysis illustrated that the site is characterized by a network of outcrops and boulders interspersed within a predominately sandy environment, with a diverse array of biota including Cnidaria, Porifera, Mollusca, Chordata, Echinodermata, and Rhodophyta. Compiling these data into a BHM and geographic information system (GIS) geodatabase is a powerful way to assess ecosystems and support conservation efforts.