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Anthropogenic mortality on coral reefs in Caribbean Panama predates coral disease and bleaching

Authors

  • Katie L. Cramer,

    Corresponding author
    1. Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
    2. Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0848-03092, Balboa, Republic of Panama
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  • Jeremy B. C. Jackson,

    1. Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
    2. Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0848-03092, Balboa, Republic of Panama
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  • Christopher V. Angioletti,

    1. Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
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  • Jill Leonard-Pingel,

    1. Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
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  • Thomas P. Guilderson

    1. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA 94550, USA
    2. Institute of Marine Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
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E-mail:katie.cramer@gmail.com

Abstract

Ecology Letters (2012)

Abstract

Caribbean reef corals have declined precipitously since the 1980s due to regional episodes of bleaching, disease and algal overgrowth, but the extent of earlier degradation due to localised historical disturbances such as land clearing and overfishing remains unresolved. We analysed coral and molluscan fossil assemblages from reefs near Bocas del Toro, Panama to construct a timeline of ecological change from the 19th century—present. We report large changes before 1960 in coastal lagoons coincident with extensive deforestation, and after 1960 on offshore reefs. Striking changes include the demise of previously dominant staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis and oyster Dendrostrea frons that lives attached to gorgonians and staghorn corals. Reductions in bivalve size and simplification of gastropod trophic structure further implicate increasing environmental stress on reefs. Our paleoecological data strongly support the hypothesis, from extensive qualitative data, that Caribbean reef degradation predates coral bleaching and disease outbreaks linked to anthropogenic climate change.

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