Research on reef corals and coral reefs

Fossil corals

A selection of fossil corals from Indonesia

Principal Investigator

Dr Ken Johnson 

Project summary

  • Focus: Studying fossil corals to understand the effect of past environmental changes on the animals and help predict their response to ongoing and future changes

We are studying fossil corals to understand the biological consequences of past environmental changes. This will help us predict how reef systems might respond to ongoing and future environmental changes.

Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. They are threatened worldwide by human activity and have recently faced unprecedented environmental changes. There is, however, evidence in the fossil record of reef systems facing rapid environmental change in the past.

We are able to study past examples of rapid change from many time periods and regions. Together they show how ancient reef systems responded to various types of environmental change.

Caribbean coral reefs

The Caribbean Basin has experienced several periods of accelerated environmental change during the past 30 million years. We are using these periods of change as case studies to investigate how reef biotas respond to regional changes.    

We have analysed a large number of fossil corals using an up-to-date taxonomic framework and new interpretations of the region's geology.

Our analysis indicates that after the Eocene extensive development of coral reefs in the Caribbean was limited to two intervals of the Cenozoic: the Late Oligocene and Quaternary. A long period without significant reef development interrupted these episodes of large-scale construction.

Historical records of human impact

There is widespread agreement that human activity is threatening coral reefs around the world. But ecologists who study modern reefs lack the long-term data required to distinguish natural variability from anthropogenic change. This means that they cannot easily link many of the observed changes to human activities.

We are studying sediments and fossils from cores extracted from reefs to document the historic natural variability in these reefs.

Other projects include:

Museum staff

External collabaorators