This project focuses on long-term changes in the benthic community structure of shallow coral reefs in the US Virgin Islands, and has a strong emphasis on a 10 km stretch of the south shore of St. John.
This piece of the Caribbean has a fascinating history of quantitative ecology dating back to the 1950s’s when Dr. John Randall conducted his first studies of these reefs, and later when the Tektite undersea laboratory was place in 1969 and 1970. The present study is conducted in close collaboration with the VI National Park and began in December 1987. Annual surveys have now been conducted over three decades to generate a record that is among the longest for any reef in the Caribbean. The longest portion of the study focuses stony corals (i.e., scleractinians), and more recently, has expanded (in 2014) to provide a soft coral (i.e., octocorals) “overlay”. The expansion of the study was driven by evidence that soft corals have been dying less rapidly on modern reefs, and in at least two locations (one being St. John), have increased in abundance over the last decade. This raises the possibility that the overall benthic community structure is undergoing a gradual regime change favoring organisms that historically were less important that stony corals, but on future reefs, may adopt more important roles.