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Scleractinian “stony” corals are major habitat engineers, whose skeletons form the framework for the highly diverse, yet increasingly threatened, coral reef ecosystem. Fossil coral skeletons also present a rich record that enables paleontological analysis of coral origins, tracing them back to the Triassic (~241 Myr). While numerous invertebrate lineages were eradicated at the last major mass extinction boundary, the Cretaceous-Tertiary/K-T (66 Myr), a number of Scleractinian corals survived. We review this history and assess traits correlated with K-T mass extinction survival. Disaster-related “survival” traits that emerged from our analysis are: (1) deep water residing (>100 m); (2) cosmopolitan distributions, (3) non-symbiotic, (4) solitary or small colonies and (5) bleaching-resistant. We then compared these traits to the traits of modern Scleractinian corals, using to IUCN Red List data, and report that corals with these same survival traits have relatively stable populations, while those lacking them are presently decreasing in abundance and diversity. This shows corals exhibiting a similar dynamic survival response as seen at the last major extinction, the K-T. While these results could be seen as promising, that some corals may survive the Anthropocene extinction, they also highlight how our relatively-fragile Primate order does not possess analogous “survival” characteristics, nor have a record of mass extinction survival as some corals are capable.


This work was originally published in Scientific Reports, available at

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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