Coral Reef Ecology and Biology

Among the most spectacular of all ecosystems, coral reefs form in the world’s tropical oceans through the action of animals and plants. They are the largest and most complex biological structures on earth. Although they cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface, they are reservoirs for much of the ocean’s biodiversity, housing some of nature’s most intricate ecological secrets and treasures. Coral reefs are also the most productive ecosystems in the sea and provide significant ecological goods and services, estimated at about $375 billion annually with more recent estimates topping 9 trillion dollars in 2019.
Their physical structures protect thousands of miles of coastline from the fury of tropical storms, tsunamis, and many low lying islands threatened by rising seas. The intricate adaptations for survival that have evolved over an immense span of time make reefs vulnerable to human activities. For example, excess nutrients support algal overgrowth, while over fishing alters the food web. The extent to which reefs in remote locations are now showing signs of stress, especially bleaching and disease, points to the critical role that coral reefs play as indicators of declining ocean health. This course will be an introduction to tropical coral reefs and the organisms and processes responsible for their formation. We will begin with an overview of reefs and their tropical marine environment. The course will then move into the evolution, systematic, and physiology, ecology and symbiosis of reef building corals. These subjects will set the stage for learning about coral reef fish communities structure and ecological dynamics. The course will close by taking a critical look at natural and human disturbances to reefs with an emphasis on current models of management and conservation. This will allow us to examine cutting-edge questions in coral reef biology and conservation.

Target Students
Students with background in general biology or marine science who wish to become tropical marine biologists specializing in coral reefs and coral reef fish.

Prerequisites or Prior Knowledge

Students need to have basic knowledge of general biology and zoology. Also students have to able to swim and snorkel for the field trip component of the course.