© 2016 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved. We propose ‘the moving target hypothesis’ to describe the aetiology of a contemporary coral disease that differs from that of its historical disease state. Hitting the target with coral disease aetiology is a complex pursuit that requires understanding of host and environment, and may lack a single pathogen solution. White pox disease (WPX) affects the Caribbean coral Acropora palmata. Acroporid serratiosis is a form of WPX for which the bacterial pathogen (Serratia marcescens) has been established.We used long-term (1994-2014) photographic monitoring to evaluate historical and contemporary epizootiology and aetiology ofWPXaffecting A. palmata at eight reefs in the Florida Keys. Ranges of WPX prevalence over time (0-71.4%) were comparable for the duration of the 20-year study. Whole colony mortality and disease severity were high in historical (1994-2004), and low in contemporary (2008-2014), outbreaks of WPX. Acroporid serratiosis was diagnosed for some historical (1999, 2003) and contemporary (2012, 2013) outbreaks, but this form of WPX was not confirmed for all WPX cases. Our results serve as a context for considering aetiology as a moving target for WPX and other coral diseases for which pathogens are established and/or candidate pathogens are identified. Coral aetiology investigations completed to date suggest that changes in pathogen, host and/or environment alter the disease state and complicate diagnosis.