Modern Coral Reef Ecology: Combining Natural & Anthropogenic Environmental Factors

Written By Evan Quinter

In 2018, researchers scanning through the Deep-Sea Debris Database discovered a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. At a depth of 10,898 meters, our single-use plastic now infests the deepest part of the ocean and demonstrates the extent of human influence on the natural world. Our actions alter the environment on a planetary scale, where we often exasperate the balance and resources of any given ecosystem, including coral reefs. If we want to understand the complex processes and interactions in reef systems, we need to include ourselves as major influencers of ecological change.

Ecology is classically based in pre-industrial scenarios where humans are marginally influential, leaving natural drivers to explain environmental patterns. For coral reefs, these factors can include habitat complexity, wave action, primary production, and temperature, among others. In natural settings, reef systems change and adapt based on these gradients, making them reliable predictors for community health and composition. And we aren’t excluded from these models; when humans interact with coral reefs through sustainable practices, like subsistence fishing, we become a part of this relatively balanced system.

Figure 1 depicts how reef communities can fluctuate based on natural environmental parameters. Figure adapted from Williams, G.J. et al. 2019

However, this perpetual balance is thrown-off axis when we start to take too much. Beyond natural factors, human-induced environmental pressures can overuse resources and increase the effects of other natural influences. We impact coral reefs in so many ways that threaten reef health: industrial fishing changes reef communities from fish physiology to entire community structures, plastic waste increases coral mortality and disease, and the culmination of ocean warming and acidification, combined with other environmental stressors, can threaten the stability of entire reef ecosystems.

Figure 2 demonstrates the exponentially higher reef pressures that have risen in the Anthropogenic age compared to before the Industrial Age. Figure adapted from Williams, G.J. et al. 2019

To grasp the scale of the human factor in coral reef ecology, we also need to examine the socio-economic influences behind our societal choices. Distal, or distantly related, drivers behind major environmental issues revolve around our global practices. This includes consumerism, migration, resource trade, travel on non-renewable energy sources, greenhouse gas emissions; all human activities expected to increase in coming years. We now live in a time when classic ecology models will lose their ability to predict reef system responses as natural gradients are being overpowered by our direct and distal impacts on the reef ecosystems.

Figure 2
Figure 3 depicts the interconnected relationships between coral reef ecosystems, human wellbeing, and the societal choices that shape our world. Figure adapted from Hughes et al. 2017

Fortunately, a team of researchers proposed a new ecology concept for the modern age. Coined “social-ecology macroecology,” scientists advocate for a study of macroecology that places humans as a key factor, hopefully advancing coral reef ecology to investigate the interconnected natural and human drivers of coral reef ecosystems. Researchers in this new field seek to identify the extent of human influence and test new results against classic ecology models, but this novel ecology procedure could elicit better predictions for coral reef’s adaptability and health in the Anthropocene.

As we continue to study reefs, we must keep humans as a key component of coral reef ecology and conservation. We are forever linked to nature, as the basic human right to a satisfactory quality of life is contingent on environmental health. So as coral reef ecology evolves to include anthropogenic forces, let’s ensure our conservation solutions are just for the coral reefs and humans alike.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the links below:

The article on social-ecology macroecology:

How human well-being is a good predictor for environmental progress:

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