ABSTRACT Benthic Habitat Mapping of Thuwal’s Reefs Using High-Resolution Acoustic Technologies and Imaging Data Marta Andrea Ezeta Watts Remote sensing studies based on satellite and aerial imagery have improved our understanding of the morphology and distribution of several shallow reefs along the Red Sea Arabian coast and of the benthic assemblages associated to them (Bruckner et al., 2011; Bruckner et al., 2012; Rowlands et al., 2016). However, data concerning the deeper benthic assemblages' composition and spatial distribution in the central Red Sea are still missing. Using high-resolution acoustic technology and an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV), we aim to map, describe, and classify the reefs found in Thuwal's coastal area, filling the information gap by producing the first benthic habitat map of this area and making progress towards the evaluation of shallow and upper mesophotic benthic resources in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea. High-resolution acoustic data was collected using a multibeam echosounder system, which generated a bathymetric model. Based on this, the seafloor features were classified into 12 morphotypes following a visual assessment. Based on the morphotypes classification, 28 sites were visually selected for ground-truthing data acquisition and characterization of the substrate and benthic assemblages using a remotely operated vehicle equipped with an ultra-short baseline (USBL) positioning system. With the information obtained from the bathymetry data and the ROV video transects, a Top-Down approach in which we analyzed, categorized, and classified the data was used to create Thuwal's reefs benthic habitat map in which 23 different benthic habitat types were identified. This research uncovered previously poorly studied reef morphologies in the Red Sea and their associated benthic assemblages. Moreover, this work will help improve the understanding of the spatial distribution of benthic communities located on Thuwal's reefs, giving a baseline with the potential to provide fundamental information that can be used for mapping, management, conservation, and future research at other Red Sea reef sites in Saudi Arabia.
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