In tropical reef ecosystems corals are the key habitat builders providing most ecosystem structure, which influences coral reef biodiversity and resilience. Remote sensing applications have progressed significantly and photogrammetry together with application of structure from motion software is emerging as a leading technique to create three-dimensional (3D) models of corals and reefs from which biophysical properties of structural complexity can be quantified. This enables the addressing of a range of important marine research questions, such as what the role of habitat complexity is in driving key ecological processes (i.e.
, foraging). Yet, it is essential to assess the accuracy and precision of photogrammetric measurements to support their application in mapping, monitoring and quantifying coral reef form and structure. This study evaluated the precision (by repeated modeling) and accuracy (by comparison with laser reference models) of geometry and structural complexity metrics derived from photogrammetric 3D models of marine benthic habitat at two ecologically relevant spatial extents; individual coral colonies of a range of common morphologies and patches of reef area of 100s of square metres. Surface rugosity measurements were generally precise across all morphologies and spatial extents with average differences in the geometry of replicate models of 1–6 mm for coral colonies and 25 mm for the reef area. Precision decreased with complexity of the coral morphology, with metrics for small massive corals being the most precise (1% coefficient of variation (CV) in surface rugosity) and metrics for bottlebrush corals being the least precise (10% CV in surface rugosity). There was no indication however that precision was related to complexity for the patch-scale modelling. The 3D geometry of coral models differed by only 1–3 mm from laser reference models. However, high spatial variation in these differences around the model led to a consistent underestimation of surface rugosity values for all morphs of between 8% and 37%. This study highlights the utility of several off-the-shelf photogrammetry tools for the measurement of structural complexity across a range of scales relevant to ecologist and managers. It also provides important information on the accuracy and precision of these systems which should allow for their targeted use by non-experts in computer vision within these contexts.
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