Dr Kenneth Johnson

Ken Johnson
  • Researcher
  • Earth Sciences department
  • Invertebrates and Plants Division
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road


Human Impact on Coral Reefs


Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, and are threatened worldwide by the activities of humans. For reef ecologists, these changes are unprecedented, but there is abundant evidence for rapid ecological change on reef systems from the fossil record. These past examples can be studied from many time intervals and regions, and together form a set of replicated "natural experiments" in which ancient ecosystems responded to various types of environmental change. My research program is to study these past experiments to understand the biological consequences of past changes and help predict how modern reef systems might respond to ongoing and future global environmental change.

Origins of Southeast Asian Marine Biodiversity

Reef rocks on Gunung Eso

Working on exposures of Early Miocene reef rocks on Gunung Eso, Java.



One region of particular interest is the 'coral triangle' that today contains the highest diversity of marine life on Earth.  To better understand how environmental changes have shaped this biota, I will be co-ordinating multi-disciplinary group of researchers from 12 institutions to produce an integrated study of Oligocene and Miocene basins in Java and Kalimantan. The project has been funded as an EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network. The goal of this study is to determine the environmental and biotic effects of the initial closure of the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF) to deep-water circulation during the Late Oligocene or Early Miocene. By restricting flow of water from the tropical west Pacific into the Indian Ocean, the ITF plays an important role in determining global climate. This interval is characterised by both an apparent increase in regional reef-building and the diversification of reef-corals and mollusks leading to the development of the present-day 'coral triangle'. Is it a coincidence that this global biodiversity hotspot occurs in a geologically dynamic region that also contains a major control of the global climate?

Our first network activity is the International Symposium on Southeast Asian Gateway Evolution jointly hosted by NHM and Royal Holloway, University of London that will be held in September 2009.

The Oligocene/Miocene Transition on Caribbean Coral Reefs

Diploastrea crassolamelata from Antigua

Diploastrea crassolamellata from the Late Oligocene Antigua Fm.



The Caribbean Basin contains several time intervals of accelerated change during the past 30 million years that can be used as case studies to understand how reef biota respond to environmental changes on regional scale. Analysis of large collections of fossil corals identified using an up-to-date taxonomic framework and with newly interpreted stratigraphy indicates that extensive development of Caribbean coral reef ecosystems after the Eocene was limited to two intervals of the Cenozoic. Late Oligocene and Quaternary episodes of large-scale reef construction were interrupted by a long interval without major constructional reef buildups. 

Oligocene Acropora

Acropora saludensis from the Late Oligocene Antigua Fm.

Surprisingly, the changing diversity of reef coral species does not exactly mirror this broad pattern. Although major extinctions occurred twice, the first is associated with the Early Miocene decline of reef building and the second is nearly contemporaneous with the Early Pleistocene renewal of extensive reef development. Moreover, regional diversity of reef-corals is inversely related to reef building during the past 30 million years, so that extensive Late Oligocene and Quaternary reefs were constructed by relatively few species, but the more diverse Late Pliocene coral biota was not building reefs. Instead, rich Pliocene coral communities were living in coral meadows, sea grass beds, and other soft bottom and reef-marginal settings. These counter-intuitive results suggest that past environmental conditions that were conducive to the development and maintenance of high diversity of reef-corals are not the same that encourage regional reef growth.  Researchers and managers developing strategies to manage coral reef ecosystems during the coming decades might need to choose between encouraging reef development or maximizing  diversity of reef-corals. 


Biodiversity Informatics of Scleractinian Corals 

A syntype of Psammoseris hemispherica Gray

A syntype of Psammoseris hemispherica Gray (BMNH 1842.12.2.83).

The field of scleractinian coral taxonomy is in the midst of a revolution as we incorporate new data resulting from advances in molecular systematics and the application of new technologies for extracting new kinds of morphological characters from coral skeletons. One important goal of this effort is the production of a rigorous framework providing well-circumscribed taxon concepts to allow consistent identification of corals for use by non-taxonomist colleagues. We are using collaborative web-based tools at Corallosphere.org that enable registered contributors to compile, review, and edit nomenclatural data, taxonomic diagnoses, and synonyms. Users may contribute images of types and entries into an illustrated glossary of morphological terms. All users are able to post comments, and a formal peer-review mechanism helps to ensure high-quality content. The aim is to produce a system that will help remove the taxonomic impediment that is currently slowing progress towards an improved understanding of the biology, ecology, and evolutionary history of the Scleractinia.

Natural History Museum Collections for Environmental Change Research

Fossil Molluscs in a Natural History Collection

Fossils can provide useful information to understand biotic responses to environmental change. © Image courtesy of Caitlin Kelly


I am a founding member of the NHM 'High Water Club', an informal group of museum researchers, curators, and public engagement staff interested in finding new uses for NHM collections, expertise, and data to address questions related to environmental change. With support from the NHM Strategic Innovation Fund, we are currently engaged in a pilot study to identify collections areas likely to be useful for this purpose.  


Major Grants

  • 2010-2014 European Commission Marie Curie Initial Training Network: The response of marine biodiversity hotspots to global environmental change (network coordinator, projected €2,700,000)
  • 2003-2005 US National Science Foundation: Beyond the bottleneck: New initiatives in Invertebrate Paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County ($230,000).
  • 2000-2003 US National Science Foundation: Contradictory trends in the history of Cenozoic corals and coral reefs: Oceanographic change and biotic response ($200,000, with J.B.C. Jackson)
  • 1994-1999 Natural Environment Research Council (UK) Advanced Research Fellowship: Evolutionary palaeobiology of Neogene reef-corals (£225,000)

Employment history

  • 2005- present  Researcher, Natural History Museum, London
  • 2001-2005 Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
  • 2000-2003 Associate Project Scientist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • 1999-2000 Postdoctoral Research Paleontologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • 1994-1998 NERC Advanced Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Glasgow
  • 1992-1993 NSF Postdoctoral Researcher, Natural History Museum, London
  • 1990-1991 Graduate Research Assistant, University of Iowa
  • 1989-1990 Predoctoral Research Fellow, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
  • 1985-1989 Teaching and Research Fellow, University of Iowa


  • 1985 B.S. Geology, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, USA
  • 1991 PhD. Geology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

Recent Publications

  • Johnson, K. G., M. R. Sánchez-Villagra, and O. A. Aguilera. ( 2009 ) The Oligocene/Miocene transition on coral reefs in the Falcón Basin (NW Venezuela) and the changing course of the ancient Orinoco River Palaios 24 : 59-69 . 10.2110/palo.2008.p08-004r
  • Budd, A. F., Adrain, T., S., Park, J. W., Klaus, J. F. and Johnson, K. G. ( 2008 ) The Neogene Marine Biota of Tropical America ("NMITA") Database: Integrating data from the Dominican Republic Project., In: Evolutionary stasis and change in the Dominican Republic Neogene . Springer : New York , 301-310 .
  • Gaffney, E. S., Scheyer, T. M., Johnson, K. G., Bocquentin, J. and Aguilera, O. A. ( 2008 ) Two new species of the side necked turtle genus, Bairdemys (Pleurodira, Podocnemididae), from the Miocene of Venezuela Palaeontologische Zeitschrift 82 : 209-229 .
  • Johnson, K. G., Budd, A. F., Klaus, J. F. and McNeill, D. F. ( 2008 ) The impact of fossils from the northern Dominican Republic on origination estimates for Miocene and Pliocene Caribbean reef corals, In: Evolutionary stasis and change in the Dominican Republic Neogene . Springer : New York , .
  • Johnson, K. G., J. B. C. Jackson, and A. F. Budd ( 2008 ) Caribbean Reef Development Was Independent of Coral Diversity over 28 Million Years Science 319 : 1521-1523 . 10.1126/science.1152197
  • Klaus, J. F., McNeill, D. F., Budd, A. F. and Johnson, K. G. ( 2008 ) Assessing community change in Miocene to Pliocene coral assemblages in the northern Dominican Republic, In: Evolutionary stasis and change in the Dominican Republic Neogene . Springer : New York , 193-224 .
  • Perry, C. T., Smithers, S., Palmer, S. E., Larcombe, P., and Johnson, K. G.   ( 2008 ) A 1200-year paleoecological record of coral community development from the terrigenous inner-shelf of the Great Barrier Reef Geology 36 : 691-694 . 10.1130/G24907A.1
  • Renema, W., Bellwood, D. R., Braga, J. C., Bromfield, K., Hall, R., Johnson, K. G., Lunt, P., Meyer, C. P., McMonagle, L. B., Morley, R. J., O’dea, A., Todd, J. A., Wesselingh, F. P., Wilson, M. E. J. and Pandolfi, J. M. ( 2008 ) Hopping Hotspots: global shifts in marine biodiversity Science 321 : 654-657 . 10.1126/science.1155674
  • Johnson, K. G. ( 2007 ) Reef-coral diversity from the Late Oligocene Antigua Formation and temporal variation of local diversity on Caribbean Cenozoic Reefs Schriftenreihe der Erdwissenschaftlichen Kommissionen 17 : 471-492 .
  • Johnson, K. G., Todd,  J. A., and Jackson, J. B. C. ( 2007 )  Coral reef development drives molluscan diversity increase at local and regional scales in the late Neogene and Quaternary of the southwestern Caribbean Paleobiology 33:24-52 : . 10.1666/06022.1
  • O’Dea, A.,  Jackson, J. B. C., Fortunato,  H.,Smith, J. T.,  D’Croz,  L., Johnson, K. G., and Todd, J. A. ( 2007 ) Environmental change preceded Caribbean extinction by 2 million years Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 : 5501-5506 . 10.1073/pnas.0610947104
  • Johnson, K. G. and Kirby, M. X. ( 2006 ) The Emperador Limestone rediscovered: Early Miocene corals from the Culebra Formation, Panama Journal of Paleontology 80 : 283-293 . 10.1666/0022-3360(2006)080[0283:TELREM]2.0.CO;2
  • Johnson, K. G. and Pérez, M. E. ( 2006 ) Skeletal Extension Rates of Cenozoic Caribbean Reef Corals Palaios 21 : 262-271 . 10.2110/palo.2004.p04-52