The Paleoecology of Coral Reefs

  • John M. PandolfiEmail author


Reefs are one of the oldest ecosystems in the world, and coral reefs have had a rich and varied history over hundreds of millions of years. The long-term history of living reef organisms provides an essential window in which to view a number of fundamental evolutionary and ecological processes over extended time frames not available to modern ecology over years or decades. Many of the constituents of modern reefs are calcifying organisms that leave a record of their presence in the fossil record. Thus, coral reef paleoecology has been undertaken on tropical ecosystems worldwide with applications in ecology, evolution, biogeography, extinction risk, conservation and management, and global change biology. Because many reef organisms secrete their calcareous skeletons at or near isotopic equilibrium with ambient seawater, they have also been used to reconstruct environmental conditions over long time frames. The examination of ecological and evolutionary change in the context of environmental variability provides an ideal framework for understanding coral reef paleoecology and placing the modern biodiversity crisis in an historical context.


Coral reefs paleoecology reef management ecology evolution global change biodiversity evolutionary turnover biogeography conservation biology 


  1. Abram NJ, Webster JM, Davies PJ, Dullo WC (2001) Biological response of coral reefs to sea surface temperature variation: evidence from the raised Holocene reefs of Kikai-jima (Ryukyu Islands, Japan). Coral Reefs 20:221–234Google Scholar
  2. Adey WH (1975) The algal ridges and coral reefs of St. Croix their structure and Holocene development. Atoll Res Bull 187:1–67Google Scholar
  3. Adey WH (1978) Coral reef morphogenesis: a multidimensional model. Science 202:831–837Google Scholar
  4. Aronson RB, Precht WF (1997) Stasis, biological disturbance, and community structure of a Holocene coral reef. Paleobiology 23:326–346Google Scholar
  5. Aronson RB, MacIntyre IG, Wapnick CM, O’Neill MW (2004) Phase shifts, alternative states, and the unprecedented convergence of two reef systems. Ecology 85:1876–1891Google Scholar
  6. Bellwood DR (2003) Origins and escalation of herbivory in fishes: a functional perspective. Paleobiology 29:71–83Google Scholar
  7. Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Folke C, Nystrom M (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429:827–833Google Scholar
  8. Brett CE, Hendy AJW, Bartholomew AJ, Bonelli JR, McLaughlin PI (2007) Response of shallow marine biotas to sea-level fluctuations: a review of faunal replacement and the process of habitat tracking. Palaios 22:228–244Google Scholar
  9. Briggs JC (2003) Marine centres of origin as evolutionary engines. J Biogeogr 30:1–18Google Scholar
  10. Budd AF, Pandolfi JM (2004) Overlapping species boundaries and hybridization within the Montastraeaannular’ reef coral complex in the Pleistocene of the Bahama Islands. Paleobiology 30:396–425Google Scholar
  11. Chappell J (1980) Coral morphology, diversity and reef growth. Nature 286:249–252Google Scholar
  12. Chave J (2004) Neutral theory and community ecology. Ecol Lett 7:241–253Google Scholar
  13. Collins LS, Budd AF, Coates AG (1996) Earliest evolution associated with closure of the tropical American seaway. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 93:6069–6072Google Scholar
  14. Connell JH (1978) Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199:1302–1310Google Scholar
  15. Copper P (1994) Ancient reef ecosystem expansion and collapse. Coral Reefs 13:3–11Google Scholar
  16. Crame JA (1980) Succession and diversity in the Pleistocene coral reefs of the Kenya coast. Palaeontology (Oxford) 23:1–37Google Scholar
  17. DiMichele WA, Behrensmeyer AK, Olszewski TD, Labandeira CC, Pandolfi JM, Wing SL, Bobe R (2004) Long-term stasis in ecological assemblages: evidence from the fossil record. Ann Rev Ecol Evol Systemat 35:285–322Google Scholar
  18. Done TJ (1982) Patterns in the distribution of coral communities across the central Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs 1:95–107Google Scholar
  19. Dullo WC (2005) Coral growth and reef growth: a brief review. Facies 51:43–58Google Scholar
  20. Edinger EN, Risk MJ (1996) Sponge borehole size as a relative measure of bioerosion and paleoproductivity. Lethaia 29:275–286Google Scholar
  21. Gagan MK, Ayliffe LK, Hopley D, Cali JA, Mortimer GE, Chappell J, McCulloch MT, Head MJ (1998) Temperature and surface-ocean water balance of the mid-Holocene tropical Western Pacific. Science 279:1014–1018Google Scholar
  22. Gardner TA, Cote IM, Gill JA, Grant A, Watkinson AR (2003) Long-term region-wide declines in Caribbean corals. Science 301:958–960Google Scholar
  23. Geister J (1977) The influence of wave exposure on the ecological zonation of Caribbean coral reefs. In: Procedings of the third international coral reef symposium, vol. 1, Miami, 1977, pp 23–29Google Scholar
  24. Gili E, Masse JP, Skelton PW (1995) Rudists as gregarious sediment-dwellers, not reef-builders, on Cretaceous carbonate platforms. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 118:3–4Google Scholar
  25. Gotelli NJ, Graves GR (1996) Null models in ecology. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  26. Graus RR, Macintyre IG (1976) Light control of growth form in colonial reef corals: computer simulation. Science 193:895–897Google Scholar
  27. Graus RR, Macintyre IG (1982) Variations in the growth forms of the reef coral Montastraea annularis (Ellis and Solander): a quantitative evaluation of growth response to light distribution using computer simulation. In: Rutzler K, Macintyre IG (eds) The Atlantic barrier reef ecosystem at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize. 1. Structure and communities. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, pp 441–464Google Scholar
  28. Greenstein BJ, Curran HA, Pandolfi JM (1998) Shifting ecological baselines and the demise of Acropora cervicornis in the western North Atlantic and Caribbean Province: a Pleistocene perspective. Coral Reefs 17:249–261Google Scholar
  29. Greenstein BJ, Pandolfi JM (2008) Escaping the heat: range shifts of reef coral taxa in coastal Western Australia. Global Change Biol 14:513–528Google Scholar
  30. Guzman HM, Cipriani R, Jackson JBC (2008) Historical decline in coral reef growth after the Panama Canal. Ambio 37:342–346Google Scholar
  31. Hallock P, Schlager W (1986) Nutrient excess and the demise of coral reefs and carbonate platforms. Palaios 1:389–398Google Scholar
  32. Harriott VJ, Banks SA (2002) Latitudinal variation in coral communities in eastern Australia: a qualitative biophysical model of factors regulating coral reefs. Coral Reefs 21:83–94Google Scholar
  33. Harzhauser M, Kroh A, Mandic O, Piller WE, Göhlich U, Reuter M, Berning B (2007) Biogeographic responses to geodynamics: a key study all around the Oligo-Miocene Tethyan Seaway. Zool Anz 246:241–256Google Scholar
  34. Hatcher BG (1997) Coral reef ecosystems: how much greater is the whole than the sum of the parts? Coral Reefs 16:S77–S91Google Scholar
  35. Hönisch B, Hemming NG, Grottoli AG, Amat A, Hanson GN, Bijma J (2004) Assessing scleractinian corals as recorders for paleo-pH: empirical calibration and vital effects. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68:3675–3685Google Scholar
  36. Hubbell SP (1997) A unified theory of biogeography and relative species abundance and its application to tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Coral Reefs 16(Suppl):S9–S21Google Scholar
  37. Hubbell SP (2001) The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  38. Hughes TP, Baird AH, Bellwood DR, Card M, Connolly SR, Folke C, Grosberg R, Hoegh-Guldberg O, Jackson JBC, Kleypas J, Lough JM, Marshall P, Nystrom M, Palumbi SR, Pandolfi JM, Rosen B, Roughgarden J (2003) Climate change, human impacts, and the resilience of coral reefs. Science 301:929–933Google Scholar
  39. Hughes WW (1985) Planetary rotation and invertebrate skeletal patterns: prospects for extant taxa. Geophys Surv 7:169–183Google Scholar
  40. Jablonski D, Roy K, Valentine JW (2006) Out of the tropics: evolutionary dynamics of the latitudinal diversity gradient. Science 314:102–106Google Scholar
  41. Jackson JBC, Johnson KG (2001) Paleoecology – measuring past biodiversity. Science 293:2401–2404Google Scholar
  42. Jackson JBC, Erwin DH (2006) What can we learn about ecology and evolution from the fossil record? Trends Ecol Evol 21:322–328Google Scholar
  43. Jackson JBC, Budd AF, Coates AG (eds) (1996) Evolution and environment in Tropical America. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  44. Jackson JBC, Kirby MX, Berger WH, Bjorndal KA, Botsford LW, Bourque BJ, Bradbury RH, Cooke R, Erlandson J, Estes JA, Hughes TP, Kidwell S, Lange CB, Lenihan HS, Pandolfi JM, Peterson CH, Steneck RS, Tegner MJ, Warner RR (2001) Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293:629–638Google Scholar
  45. Johnson KG, Jackson JBC, Budd AF (2008) Caribbean reef development was independent of coral diversity over 28 million years. Science 319:1521–1523Google Scholar
  46. Johnson KG, Perez ME (2006) Skeletal extension rates of Cenozoic Caribbean reef corals. Palaios 21:262–271Google Scholar
  47. Jokiel PL (1984) Long distance dispersal of reef corals by rafting. Coral Reefs 3:113–116Google Scholar
  48. Karlson RH (2002) Dynamics of coral communities. Kluwer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  49. Kauffman EG, Johnson CC (1988) The morphological and ecological evolution of Middle and Upper Cretaceous reef-building Rudistids. Palaios 3:194–216Google Scholar
  50. Kaufman L (1981) There was biological disturbance on Pleistocene coral reefs. Paleobiology 7:527–532Google Scholar
  51. Kendrick G, Wyrwoll K, Szabo B (1991) Pliocene-Pleistocene coastal events and history along the western margin of Australia. Quatern Sci Rev 10:419–439Google Scholar
  52. Kiessling W (2001) Paleoclimatic significance of Phanerozoic reefs. Geology 29:751–754Google Scholar
  53. Kiessling W (2005) Habitat effects and sampling bias on Phanerozoic reef distribution. Facies 51:24–32Google Scholar
  54. Kiessling W (2009) Geological and biologic controls on the evolution of reefs. Ann Rev Ecol Evol Systemat 40:173–192Google Scholar
  55. Kiessling W, Aberhan M, Aragon E, Scasso R, Medina F, Kriwet J, Fracchia D (2005) Massive corals in Paleocene siliciclastic sediments of Chubut (Argentina). Facies 51:233–241Google Scholar
  56. Klaus JS, Budd AF (2003) Comparison of Caribbean coral reef communities before and after Plio-Pleistocene faunal turnover: analyses of two Dominican Republic reef sequences. Palaios 18:3–21Google Scholar
  57. Knowlton N, Weil E, Weigt LA, Guzman HM (1992) Sibling species in Montastraea annularis, coral bleaching, and the coral climate record. Science 255:330–333Google Scholar
  58. Lewis JB (1984) The Acropora inheritance: a reinterpretation of the development of fringing reefs in Barbados, West Indies. Coral Reefs 3:117–122Google Scholar
  59. Li Q, James N, Bone Y, McGowran B (1999) Palaeoceanographic significance of recent foraminiferal biofacies on the southern shelf of Western Australia: a preliminary study. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 147:101–120Google Scholar
  60. Marsh LM (1993) The occurrence and growth of Acropora in extra-tropical waters off Perth, Western Australia. In: Proceedings of the seventh international coral reef symposium, vol. 7, guam, 1997, pp 1233–1238Google Scholar
  61. Masse JP, Montaggioni LF (2001) Growth history of shallow-water carbonates: control of accommodation on ecological and depositional processes. Int J Earth Sci 90:452–469Google Scholar
  62. McCulloch M, Fallon S, Wyndham T, Hendy E, Lough J, Barnes D (2003) Coral record of increased sediment flux to the inner Great Barrier Reef since European settlement. Nature 421:727–730Google Scholar
  63. McGill BJ, Hadly EA, Maurer BA (2005) Community inertia of quaternary small mammal assemblages in North America. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 102:16701–16706Google Scholar
  64. McGowran B, Li QY, Cann J, Padley D, McKirdy D, Shafik S (1997) Biogeographic impact of the Leeuwin current in south-ern Australia since the late middle Eocene. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 136:19–40Google Scholar
  65. Mesolella K (1967) Zonation of uplifted Pleistocene coral reefs on Barbados West Indies. Science 156:638–640Google Scholar
  66. Moberg F, Folke C (1999) Ecological goods and services of coral reef ecosystems. Ecol Econ 29:215–233Google Scholar
  67. Montaggioni LF (2005) History of Indo-Pacific coral reef systems since the last glaciation: development patterns and controlling factors. Earth Sci Rev 71:1–75Google Scholar
  68. Muscatine L, Goiran C, Land L, Jaubert J, Cuif J-P, Allemand D (2005) Stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) of organic matrix from coral skeleton. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 102:1525–1530Google Scholar
  69. Newell ND (1971) An outline history of tropical organic reefs. Am Mus Novit 2465:1–37Google Scholar
  70. O’Dea A, Jackson JBC, Fortunato H, Smith JT, D’Croz L, Johnson KG, Todd JA (2007) Environmental change preceded Caribbean extinction by 2 million years. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:5501–5506Google Scholar
  71. Olszewski TD, Erwin DH (2004) Dynamic response of Permian brachiopod communities to long-term environmental change. Nature 428:738–741Google Scholar
  72. Pandolfi JM (1992) Successive isolation rather than evolutionary centres for the origination of Indo-Pacific reef corals. J Biogeogr 19:593–609Google Scholar
  73. Pandolfi JM (1996) Limited membership in Pleistocene reef coral assemblages from the Huon Peninsula, Papua New Guinea: constancy during global change. Paleobiology 22:152–176Google Scholar
  74. Pandolfi JM (1999) Response of Pleistocene coral reefs to environmental change over long temporal scales. Am Zool 39:113–130Google Scholar
  75. Pandolfi JM (2002) Coral community dynamics at multiple scales. Coral Reefs 21:13–23Google Scholar
  76. Pandolfi JM (2007) A new, extinct Pleistocene reef coral from the Montastraea annularis species complex. J Paleontol 81:472–482Google Scholar
  77. Pandolfi JM, Budd AF (2008) Morphology and ecological zonation of Caribbean reef corals: the Montastraea annularis species complex. Mar Ecol Progr Ser 369:89–102Google Scholar
  78. Pandolfi JM, Greenstein BJ (2007) Using the past to understand the future: palaeoecology of coral reefs. In: Johnson JE, Marshall PA (eds) Climate change and the Great Barrier Reef. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Greenhouse Office, Townsville, Australia, pp 717–744Google Scholar
  79. Pandolfi JM, Jackson JBC (2001) Community structure of Pleistocene coral reefs of Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. Ecol Monogr 71:49–67Google Scholar
  80. Pandolfi JM, Jackson JBC (2006) Ecological persistence interrupted in Caribbean coral reefs. Ecol Lett 9:818–826Google Scholar
  81. Pandolfi JM, Jackson JBC, Geister J (2001) Geologically sudden natural extinction of two widespread Late Pleistocene Caribbean reef corals. In: Jackson JBC, Lidgard S, McKinney FK (eds) Evolutionary patterns: growth. Form and tempo in the fossil record. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 120–158Google Scholar
  82. Pandolfi JM, Lovelock CE, Budd AF (2002) Character release following extinction in a Caribbean reef coral species complex. Evolution 53:479–501Google Scholar
  83. Pandolfi JM, Bradbury RH, Sala E, Hughes TP, Bjorndal KA, Cooke RG, McArdle D, McClenachan L, Newman MJH, Paredes G, Warner RR, Jackson JBC (2003) Global trajectories of the long-term decline of coral reef ecosystems. Science 301:955–958Google Scholar
  84. Pandolfi JM, Jackson JBC, Baron N, Bradbury RH, Guzman HM, Hughes TP, Kappel CV, Micheli F, Ogden JC, Possingham HP, Sala E (2005) Are U.S. coral reefs on the slippery slope to slime? Science 307:1725–1726Google Scholar
  85. Pandolfi JM, Tudhope A, Burr G, Chappell J, Edinger E, Frey M, Steneck R, Sharma C, Yeates A, Jennions M, Lescinsky H, Newton A (2006) Mass mortality following disturbance in Holocene coral reefs from Papua New Guinea. Geology 34:949–952Google Scholar
  86. Pauly D (1995) Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends Ecol Evol 10:430–430Google Scholar
  87. Perry CT, Smithers SG, Palmer SE, Larcombe P, Johnson KG (2008) 1200 year paleoecological record of coral community development from the terrigenous inner shelf of the Great Barrier Reef. Geology 36:691–694Google Scholar
  88. Precht WF, Aronson RB (2004) Climate flickers and range shifts of reef corals. Front Ecol Environ 2:307–314Google Scholar
  89. Renema W, Bellwood DR, Braga JC, Bromfield K, Hall R, Johnson KG, Lunt P, Meyer CP, McMonagle LB, Morley RJ, O’Dea A, Todd JA, Wesselingh FP, Wilson MEJ, Pandolfi JM (2008) Hopping hotspots: global shifts in marine biodiversity. Science 321:654–657Google Scholar
  90. Riegl B (2001) Inhibition of reef framework by frequent disturbance: examples from the Arabian Gulf, South Africa, and the Cayman Islands. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 175:79–101Google Scholar
  91. Roff G (2010) Historical ecology of coral communities from the inshore Great Barrier Reef. Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, BrisbaneGoogle Scholar
  92. Rosen B (1988) Progress, problems and patterns in the biogeography of reef corals and other tropical marine organisms. Helgol Mar Res 42:269–301Google Scholar
  93. Ross DJ, Skelton PW (1993) Rudist formations of the Cretaceous: a palaeoecological, sedimentological and stratigraphical review. In: Wright VP (ed) Sedimentology review, vol 1. Blackwell Science, London, pp 73–91Google Scholar
  94. Runcorn SK (1966) Corals as paleontological clocks. Sci Am 215:26–33Google Scholar
  95. Savage M, Sawhill B, Askenazi M (2000) Community dynamics: what happens when we rerun the tape? J Theor Biol 205:515–526Google Scholar
  96. Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen Z, Marquis M, Averyt KB, Tignor M, Miller HL (eds) (2007) IPCC, 2007. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. contribution of Working Group I to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  97. Stanley GD Jr, Swart PK (1995) Evolution of the coral-zooxanthellae symbiosis during the Triassic: a geochemical approach. Paleobiology 21:179–199Google Scholar
  98. Tager D, Webster JW, Potts DC, Renema W, Braga JC, Pandolfi JM (2010) Community dynamics of Pleistocene coral reefs during alternative climatic regimes. Ecology 91:191–200Google Scholar
  99. Tapanila L (2004) The earliest Helicosalpinx from Canada and the global expansion of commensalism in Late Ordovician sarcinulid corals (Tabulata). Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 215:99–110Google Scholar
  100. Tomascik T, Sander F (1987) Effects of eutrophication on reef building corals. Part II. Structure of scleractinian coral communities on inshore fringing reefs, Barbados, WI. Mar Biol 94:53–75Google Scholar
  101. Tudhope AW, Chilcott CP, McCulloch MT, Cook ER, Chappell J, Ellam RM, Lea DW, Lough JM, Shimmield GB (2001) Variability in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation through a glacial-interglacial cycle. Science 291:1511–1517Google Scholar
  102. Vargas-Angel B, Thomas JD, Hokel SM (2003) High-latitude Acropora cervicornis thickets off Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. Coral Reefs 22:465–473Google Scholar
  103. Vermeij GJ (2005) One-way traffic in the western Atlantic: causes and consequences of Miocene to early Pleistocene molluscan invasions in Florida and the Caribbean. Paleobiology 31: 624–642Google Scholar
  104. Walker K, Alberstadt LP (1975) Ecological succession as an aspect of structure in fossil communities. Paleobiology 1:238–257Google Scholar
  105. Watkins R (2000) Corallite size and spacing as an aspect of niche-partitioning in tabulate corals of Silurian reefs, Racine formation, North America. Lethaia 33:55–63Google Scholar
  106. Webster JM, Davies PJ (2003) Coral variation in two deep drill cores: significance for the Pleistocene development of the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment Geol 159:61–80Google Scholar
  107. Wegley L, Edwards R, Rodriguez-Brito B, Liu H, Rohwer F (2007) Metagenomic analysis of the microbial community associated with the coral Porites astreoides. Environ Microbiol 9:2707–2719Google Scholar
  108. Wells JW (1963) Coral growth and geochronometry. Nature 197:948–950Google Scholar
  109. Wells P, Wells G (1994) Large-scale reorganization of ocean currents offshore Western Australia during the late Quaternary. Mar Micropaleontol 24:157–186Google Scholar
  110. Wilkinson C (ed) (2008) Status of coral reefs of the world. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, Townsville, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  111. Williams ST, Duda TF (2008) Did tectonic activity stimulate Oligo-Miocene speciation in the Indo-West Pacific? Evolution 62:1618–1634Google Scholar
  112. Wilson MEJ (2002) Cenozoic carbonates in Southeast Asia: implications for equatorial carbonate development. Sediment Geol 147:295–428Google Scholar
  113. Wood R (1993) Nutrients, predation and the history of reef-building. Palaios 8:526–543Google Scholar
  114. Wood R (1999) Reef evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  115. Zachos JC, Shackleton NJ, Revenaugh JS, Palike H, Flower BP (2001) Climate response to orbital forcing across the Oligocene-Miocene boundary. Science 292:274–278Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Centre for Marine Science, School of Biological SciencesUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

Personalised recommendations