The transformation of Caribbean coral communities since humans

Katie L. Cramer, Mary K. Donovan, Jeremy B.C. Jackson, Benjamin J. Greenstein, Chelsea A. Korpanty, Geoffrey M. Cook, John M. Pandolfi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The mass die-off of Caribbean corals has transformed many of this region’s reefs to macroalgal-dominated habitats since systematic monitoring began in the 1970s. Although attributed to a combination of local and global human stressors, the lack of long-term data on Caribbean reef coral communities has prevented a clear understanding of the causes and consequences of coral declines. We integrated paleoecological, historical, and modern survey data to track the occurrence of major coral species and life-history groups throughout the Caribbean from the prehuman period to the present. The regional loss of Acropora corals beginning by the 1960s from local human disturbances resulted in increases in the occurrence of formerly subdominant stress-tolerant and weedy scleractinian corals and the competitive hydrozoan Millepora beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. These transformations have resulted in the homogenization of coral communities within individual countries. However, increases in stress-tolerant and weedy corals have slowed or reversed since the 1980s and 1990s in tandem with intensified coral bleaching and disease. These patterns reveal the long history of increasingly stressful environmental conditions on Caribbean reefs that began with widespread local human disturbances and have recently culminated in the combined effects of local and global change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10098-10118
Number of pages21
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • climate change
  • conservation paleobiology
  • coral reefs
  • fishing
  • historical ecology
  • pollution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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