Everyone knows that the coral reefs of the Caribbean are a pale shadow of what they once were, but just how bad is it?

To find out, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute staff scientist Aaron O’Dea and lab members are travelling back in time to when humans had little or no impact on Caribbean reefs.

The team is taking advantage of a suite of exquisitely preserved 6,000-9,000-year-old fossil reefs in Caribbean Panama and the Dominican Republic. Back in the lab, the team is extracting the thousands of fossil corals, fishes, sponges, crabs, snails, clams and even microorganisms from the samples they collect.

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When put together, the remnants of life on these long-disappeared reefs will paint a picture of what coral reef ecosystems were like before human interference, in all their functional and spatial variation.

Aaron Canyon shot (1 of 1)

To contrast these findings, the team will also sample many modern reefs around the Caribbean to quantify the magnitude of change. These samples will help explore fundamental questions about change and variation of Caribbean coral reefs, such as

  • What were the ecological differences in the communities of fishes, corals and molluscs in past reefs?
  • How abundant were high trophic level fish and sharks before human fishing?
  • Have reef animals altered the way they grow and reproduce over time, and if so are the changes hereditable?
  • Are there reefs today that can be considered functionally “pristine”, and if so what is special about them?
  • What hope is there for Caribbean reefs? Can we and should we invest in returning to “pristine” conditions?