In this study we examined the ability of the NASA Experimental Advanced Airborne Research Lidar (EAARL) to discriminate cluster zones of massive stony coral colonies on northern Florida reef tract (NFRT) patch reefs based on their topographic complexity (rugosity). Spatially dense EAARL laser submarine topographic soundings acquired in August 2002 were used to create a 1-m resolution digital rugosity map for adjacent NFRT study areas characterized by patch reefs (Region A) and diverse substratums (Region B). In both regions, sites with lidar-sensed rugosities above 1.2 were imaged by an along-track underwater videography system that incorporated the acquisition of instantaneous GPS positions. Subsequent manual interpretation of videotape segments was performed to identify substratum types that caused elevated lidar-sensed rugosity. Our study determined that massive coral colony formation, modified by subsequent physical and biological processes that breakdown patch reef framework, was the primary source of topographic complexity sensed by the EAARL in the NFRT. Sites recognized by lidar scanning to be topographically complex preferentially occurred around the margins of patch reefs, constituted a minor fraction of the reef system, and usually reflected the presence of massive coral colonies in cluster zones, or their derivatives created by mortality, bioerosion, and physical breakdown.