Coral reef ecosystems are topographically complex environments and this structural heterogeneity influences the distribution, abundance and behavior of marine organisms. Airborne hydrographic lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) provides high resolution digital bathymetry from which topographic complexity can be quantified at multiple spatial scales. To assess the utility of lidar data as a predictor of fish and coral diversity and abundance, seven different morphometrics were applied to a 4 m resolution bathymetry grid and then quantified at multiple spatial scales (i.e., 15, 25, 50, 100, 200 and 300 m radii) using a circular moving window analysis. Predictive models for nineteen fish metrics and two coral metrics were developed using the new statistical learning technique of stochastic gradient boosting applied to regression trees. Predictive models explained 72% of the variance in herbivore biomass, 68% of parrotfish biomass, 65% of coral species richness and 64% of fish species richness. Slope of the slope (a measure of the magnitude of slope change) at relatively local spatial scales (15–100 m radii) emerged as the single best predictor. Herbivorous fish responded to topographic complexity at spatial scales of 15 and 25 m radii, whereas broader spatial scales of between 25 and 300 m radii were relevant for piscivorous fish. This study demonstrates great utility for lidar-derived bathymetry in the future development of benthic habitat maps and faunal distribution maps to support ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning.

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