Remote sensing shows potential for assessing biodiversity of coral reefs. Important steps in achieving this objective are better understanding the spectral variability of various reef components and correlating these spectral characteristics with field-based ecological assessments. Here we analyze >9400
coral reef field spectra from southwestern Puerto Rico to evaluate how spectral variability and, more specifically, spectral similarity between species influences estimates of biodiversity. Traditional field methods for estimating reef biodiversity using photoquadrats are also included to add ecological context to the spectral analysis. Results show that while many species can be distinguished
using in situ
field spectra, the addition of the overlying water column significantly reduces the ability to differentiate species, and even groups of species. This indicates that the ability to evaluate biodiversity with remote sensing decreases with increasing water depth. Due to the inherent spectral similarity amongst many species, including taxonomically dissimilar species, remote sensing underestimates biodiversity and represents the lower limit of actual species diversity. The overall implication is that coral reef ecologists using remote sensing need to consider the spatial and spectral context of the imagery, and remote sensing scientists analyzing biodiversity need to define confidence limits as a function of both water depth and the scale of information derived, e.g., species, groups of species, or community level.
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