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Coral reef distribution, status and geomorphology–biodiversity relationship in Kuna Yala (San Blas) archipelago, Caribbean Panama

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Most of the knowledge of the reef geomorphology and benthic communities of Kuna Yala coral reefs (Caribbean Panama) comes from the western side of the archipelago, a few tens of kilometers around Punta San Blas (Porvenir). To bridge the gap between Porvenir and the Colombia–Panama border, we investigated with Landsat images the extent and geomorphological diversity of the entire Kuna Yala to provide geomorphologic maps of the archipelago in 12 classes. In addition to remote sensing data, in situ survey conducted in May–June 2001 provided a Kuna Yala-wide first synoptic vision of reef status, in terms of benthic diversity (number of species of coral, octocorals, and sponges) and reef health (coral versus algal cover). For a total reef system estimated to cover 638 km2 along 480 km of coastline, 195 km2 include coral dominated areas and only 35 km2 can be considered covered by corals. A total of 69 scleractinian coral, 38 octocoral, and 82 sponge species were recorded on the outer slopes of reef formations, with a slightly higher diversity in the area presenting the most abundant and diverse reef formations (western Kuna Yala). Attempts to relate benthic diversity and geomorphological diversity provided only weak relationships regardless of the taxa, and suggest that habitat heterogeneity within geomorphological areas explain better the patterns of coral diversity. This study confirms the potential of combined remote sensing and in situ surveys for regional scale assessment, and we suggest that similar approaches should be generalized for reef mapping and assessment for other reef sites.

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