A recently developed remote-sensing instrument acquires high-quality digital photographs in shallow-marine settings within water depths of 15 m. The technology, known as the Along-Track Reef-Imaging System, provides remarkably clear, georeferenced imagery that allows visual interpretation of benthic class (substrates, organisms) for mapping coral reef habitats, as intended. Unforeseen, however, are functions new to the initial technologic purpose: interpretable evidence for real-time biogeologic processes and for perception of scaled-up skeletal self-similarity of scleractinian microstructure. Florida reef sea trials lacked the grid structure required to map contiguous habitat and submarine topography. Thus, only general observations could be made relative to times and sites of imagery. Degradation of corals was nearly universal; absence of reef fish was profound. However, ∼1% of more than 23,600 sea-trial images examined provided visual evidence for local environs and processes. Clarity in many images was so exceptional that small tracks left by organisms traversing fine-grained carbonate sand were visible. Other images revealed a compelling sense, not yet fully understood, of the microscopic wall structure characteristic of scleractinian corals. Conclusions drawn from classifiable images are that demersal marine animals, where imaged, are oblivious to the equipment and that the technology has strong capabilities beyond mapping habitat. Imagery acquired along predetermined transects that cross a variety of geomorphic features within depth limits will (1) facilitate construction of accurate contour maps of habitat and bathymetry without need for ground-truthing, (2) contain a strong geologic component of interpreted real-time processes as they relate to imaged topography and regional geomorphology, and (3) allow cost-effective monitoring of regional-and local-scale changes in an ecosystem by use of existing-image global-positioning system coordinates to re-image areas. Details revealed in the modern setting have taphonomic implications for what is often found in the geologic record.
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