Tropical Coral Reefs of the Future: Modeling Ecological Outcomes from the Analyses of Current and Historical Trends

Principal Investigator(s): 

Ruth D. Gates and Peter J. Edmunds

Shallow water reef corals deposit calcium carbonate skeletons that collectively form massive three-dimensional structures known as coral reefs. A huge number of plants and animals call these structures home, and these tropical marine ecosystems make a significant contribution to the economies of many nations through tourism, fishing and coastline protection. Over the past half century, climatic conditions, pollution and over fishing have severely damaged the integrity of many coral reefs across the globe and pessimists believe that these ecosystems could disappear completely in the next 100 years. Evidence from present-day and fossil reef communities, however, suggests that some corals and reef communities persist and even thrive in environmental conditions that cause others to die. Yet the factors that make a given coral or coral reef community resistant or sensitive to stress, or better or less able to recover from disturbance, are not well understood.

Our working group brings together scientists from the United States, Australia, Taiwan, France, and Kenya to: 1) synthesize data and identify coral species that are better able to withstand or recover from stress and define the organismic and genetic traits that characterize these species, and 2) identify coral communities and the physical features of their habitats that are associated with resistance to disturbance. We will use this information to forecast the structure, function and ecosystem services of reef communities in a future strongly influenced by climate change (warming and ocean acidification).

Fringing reefs such as this one in Moorea, French Polynesia (photographed in April 2010), represent one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet. Human and natural disturbances over the last few decades, including the effects of climate change, may push them to extinction. This working group seeks to determine whether an alternative outcome might exist, at least for a period of time, in which dramatically different reefs are ecologically dominated by a subset of corals that are resistant to environmental assault.

UPDATE: October 2013

Our working group has been highly productive this past year with two pending publications and the leadership to two NSF Earth Cube end user workshops for the coral reef systems community. In addition based on the work and ideas from this working group, the $10,000 top prize of the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge was awarded to PI Ruth Gates  and working group participant, Madeleine van Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, for their idea to increase the resilience of critical and highly vulnerable coral reef ecosystems.


Baskett, Marissa L; Fabian, Nicholas S.; Gross, Kevin, (2014). Response diversity can increase ecological resilience to disturbance in coral reefs. In The American Naturalist

Edmunds, Peter J.; Baskett, Marissa L.; Bramanti, Lorenzo; Burgess, Scott; Fabina, Nicholas S.; Han, Xueying; Lesser, Michael; Putnam, Hollie M.; Wall, Chris; Yost, Denise; Gates, Ruth D., Evaluating the causal basis of ecological success within the Scleractinia. In Review Oecologia.

Edmunds P, M Adjeroud, M Baskett, I Baums, A Budd, R Carpenter, N Fabina, T-Y Fan T-Y, E Franklin, K Gross, X Han, L Jacobson, J Klaus, T McClanahan, J O’Leary, M van Oppen, X Pochon, H Putnam, T Smith, M Stat, H Sweatman, R van Woesik, and R Gates. Persistence and change in community composition of reef corals through present, past and future climates.  In Review for PLoS One

Robert van Woesik, Erik C. Franklin, Jennifer O’Leary, Tim R. McClanahan, James S. Klaus, and Ann F. Budd. (2012) Hosts of the Plio-Pleistocene past reflect modern-day coral vulnerability. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B

More information about this research project and participants.

This work is supported by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a Center funded by NSF (Grant #EF-0553768), the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the State of California.