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What does a pristine coral reef look like?

January 28, 2013

What does a pristine coral reef look like?

Much of the seabed off Panama's Isla Colon is strewn with the rubble of dead coral, the only indication that the brightly colored sea creatures once flanked this small Caribbean island

Much of the seabed off Panama's Isla Colon is strewn with the rubble of dead coral, the only indication that the brightly colored sea creatures once flanked this small Caribbean island. But what did these reefs look like before human activity began to imperil coral ecosystems?

Although humans in the Americas have been interacting with reefs for thousands of years, reef science only began in earnest in the last 50 years or so, meaning that knowing what truly ‘pristine' was remains locked in the past. Aaron O'Dea, a marine paleobiologist at STRI plans to change this.

Using a combination of machinery and brute force, his collaborative team, which includes Katie Cramer and Richard Norris, take core samples in the waters around Bocas del Toro province. This involves driving 6-meter long aluminum pipe into the seabed - often manually with a 20-kilogram cylindrical hammer. The fossil record obtained should cover the last 1,000 years or more; a time of profound change for reefs.

Questions resonate. “Were Caribbean reefS full of sharks? Were snails bigger, was everything bigger? Did corals grow faster? Was the water clearer?” says Aaron. “But more importantly, determining when those changes took place will help reveal the drivers of deterioration and thus help us produce a roadmap to reef recovery”.

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