Shifting ecological baselines and the demise of Acropora cervicornis in the western North Atlantic and Caribbean Province: a Pleistocene perspective

Research paper by B. J. Greenstein, H. A. Curran, J. M. Pandolfi

Indexed on: 01 Sep '98Published on: 01 Sep '98Published in: Coral reefs (Online)


 In recent years, marine scientists have become increasingly alarmed over the decline of live coral cover throughout the Caribbean and tropical western Atlantic region. The Holocene and Pleistocene fossil record of coral reefs from this region potentially provides a wealth of long-term ecologic information with which to assess the historical record of changes in shallow water coral reef communities. Before fossil data can be applied to the modern reef system, critical problems involving fossil preservation must be addressed. Moreover, it must be demonstrated that the classic reef coral zonation patterns described in the early days of coral reef ecology, and upon which “healthy” versus “unhealthy” reefs are determined, are themselves representative of reefs that existed prior to any human influence. To address these issues, we have conducted systematic censuses of life and death assemblages on modern “healthy” patch reefs in the Florida reef tract that conform to the classic Caribbean model of reef coral zonation, and a patch reef in the Bahamas that is currently undergoing a transition in coral dominance that is part of a greater Caribbean-wide phenomenon. Results were compared to censuses of ancient reef assemblages preserved in Pleistocene limestones in close proximity to each modern reef. We have determined that the Pleistocene fossil record of coral reefs may be used to calibrate an ecological baseline with which to compare modern reef assemblages, and suggest that the current and rapid decline of Acropora cervicornis observed on a Bahamian patch reef may be a unique event that contrasts with the long-term persistence of this taxon during Pleistocene and Holocene time.