The NASA Experimental Advanced Airborne Research Lidar (EAARL), a temporal waveform-resolving, airborne, green wavelength LIDAR (light detection and ranging), is designed to measure the submeter-scale topography of shallow reef substrates. Topographic variability is a prime component of habitat complexity, an ecological factor that both expresses and controls the abundance and distribution of many reef organisms. Following the acquisition of EAARL coverage over both mid-platform patch reefs and shelf-margin bank reefs within Biscayne National Park in August 2002, EAARL-based optical indices of topographic variability were evaluated at 15 patch reef and bank reef sites. Several sites were selected to match reefs previously evaluated in situ along underwater video and belt transects. The analysis used large populations of submarine topographic transects derived from the examination of closely spaced laser spot reflections along LIDAR raster scans. At all 15 sites, each LIDAR transect was evaluated separately to determine optical rugosity (Rotran), and the average elevation difference between adjacent points (Av(??E ap)). Further, the whole-site mean and maximum values of Ro tran and Av(??Eap) for the entire population of transects at each analysis site, along with their standard deviations, were calculated. This study revealed that the greater habitat complexity of inshore patch reefs versus outer bank reefs results in relative differences in topographic complexity that can be discerned in the laser returns. Accordingly, LIDAR sensing of optical rugosity is proposed as a complementary new technique for the rapid assessment of shallow coral reefs. ?? Springer-Verlag 2004.