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Development of contemporary Eastern Pacific coral reefs

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An overview of oceanographic conditions prevailing in the tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean suggests that the entire region is environmentally marginal for coral-reef development. The principal features of this environment are a strong, permanent, shallow thermocline and an annual north-south migration of the Intertropical Convergence resulting in wet and dry seasons. Along tropical Eastern Pacific continental margins structural coral reefs are best developed in the Gulf of Chiriquí off western Panamá. These reefs are relatively small, with reef formation taking place at a maximum depth of roughly 10 m. All of the reefs are judged to have formed since sea level approached its present height some 5,000 years ago. A study of the physical environment in the Gulf of Chiriquí revealed the following. Seasonal differences in surface temperatures were small but significant (P≅0.01), with the dry-season median (Md) of 28.9°C higher than the rainy season one of 28.0°C. At all times, surface-water temperatures were within the range considered optimal for coral growth. There were also significant (P<0.05) seasonal differences in the depths of the 25°, 20°, and 18°C isotherms. The first was shallowest (Md=18.5 m) during the rainy season due to vertical mixing, while the latter two were shallowest (Mds=31.5 and 33.0 m, respectively) during the dry season due to a generalized shoaling of the thermocline. All three isotherms are closely associated with the thermocline and showed remarkable variability in depth, most likely connected with internal waves. Salinities were reduced down to depths greater than 20 m and for distances of more than 50 km from the coast. Seasonal differences were slight (0.7% S) but statistically significant (P<0.01). Turbidity during the rainy season reduces the amount of light reaching the bottom at 10 m depth roughly by a factor of three compared to the dry season. Even the dry season amount is only about one half as much as would be expected to reach the same depth on the seaward reef of a Westen Pacific atoll. These conditions of cool water a short distance below the surface, reduced salinities, and high seasonal turbidity combine to make the region a poor one for coral-reef formation. The history of the Eastern Pacific coral fauna is traced from the Cretaceous to the Holocene. The present fauna is of Indo-Western Pacific origin, having become established following (1) the final closure of the connections between the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific (Pliocene), (2) movement of the northern Line Islands by sea-floor spreading into the path of the North Pacific Equatorial Countercurrent (Pliocene), and (3) the loss of all Eastern Pacific hermatypes during the Pleistocene.

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Communicated by J.S. Pearse, Santa Cruz

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Dana, T.F. Development of contemporary Eastern Pacific coral reefs. Marine Biology 33, 355–374 (1975). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00390574

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  • Coral Reef
  • Atoll
  • Eastern Pacific Ocean
  • Coral Fauna
  • Tropical Eastern