High Tech with a Human Touch
ARONSON, Richard B
Professor and Head
Biological Sciences Department, College of Science
I grew up in Queens, New York and became interested in marine biology at an early age, collecting shells on Jones Beach, Long Island. I received my A.B. from Dartmouth College in 1979 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1985.
My research program combines paleontology and ecology to reconstruct the response of marine communities to environmental changes in deep time. I brings this information to bear in predicting the impacts of climate change on modern biotas and the communities they comprise. My primary focus is on coral reefs and subtidal communities in Antarctica. The plants and animals living at the latitudinal extremes of the tropics and the poles are quite different, of course, but they share a key characteristic: they have very narrow ranges of environmental tolerance. Because tropical and polar seas have very little in the way of seasonal temperature variation, most marine species in both zones are adapted to those narrow ranges, making them highly vulnerable to climatic warming. Indeed, the ecological impacts of climate change are being seen earliest and most clearly in the tropics and at the poles.
In addition to research and teaching, I am active in outreach. I visit K-12 classes regularly and work with journalists on stories about our changing planet. I recently began producing short videos on climate change and other environmental issues created by graduate students in Biological Sciences at Florida Tech:
Bertha's Blues (the dangers of overfishing)
Carbon Credits (what we can do about carbon emissions)
Climate Myths (the realities of climate change)
Learned from the Past (overexploitation of resources and the breakdown of society)
Antarctica: The Hunt for Killer Crabs (biological invasion of Antarctica accelerated by climate change)
A.B. Dartmouth College 1979
A.M. Harvard University 1980
Ph.D. Harvard University 1985
Senior Marine Scientist III, Dauphin Island Sea Lab (1999-2008)
Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, University of South Alabama (2002-2008)
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, George Washington University (1993-1994)
Courtesy Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida (2011-present)
Adjunct Faculty, Dauphin Island Sea Lab (2009–present)
Research Associate, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution (2007–present)
Adjunct Professor, Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham (2002-present)
Research Associate in Invertebrate Zoology, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (1992–present)
Climate and Coral Reefs
Cores extracted from coral-reef frameworks along an upwelling gradient in Panama show that reef ecosystems in the tropical eastern Pacific (TEP) collapsed around 4100 years ago. Coral populations and the vertical accretion of reef framework were suppressed for 2500 years, representing as much as 40% of their Holocene history. The principal cause of this millennial-scale hiatus in reef growth was increased variability of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and its coupling with the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Reef dynamics in the TEP and elsewhere in the Pacific have been driven by long-term shifts in ENSO variability for at least the last 6000 years. The intensity of seasonal upwelling acted as a second-order process, potentially influencing local ecosystem resilience. Ecological rates, including herbivory, corallivory, and competition, exerted imperceptible third-order effects on long-term rates of reef accretion, although biological interactions in refuges could have influenced the recovery of coral populations 1600 years ago.
The hiatus was a Pacific-wide phenomenon. Its widespread distribution suggests that climatic variability was a controlling influence on reef accretion over a broad longitudinal range during the Holocene. The underlying climatology is similar to likely scenarios of climate change for the next century.
Global climate change is likely driving eastern-Pacific reefs toward another regional collapse. On the positive side, if Pacific reefs were able to recover 1600 years ago after a 2500-year hiatus in coral growth, and if current trends in CO2 emissions can be stopped or reversed, reefs of the future might also prove resilient.
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Climate Change and Evolutionary Ecology of the Antarctic Bottom Fauna
Global climate change has had an important influence in Antarctica, beginning around 41 million years ago in the Eocene. This was the beginning of the transition from a cool-temperate climate in Antarctica to the polar climate as we know it today. The cooling trend strongly influenced the structure of shallow-water, Antarctic marine communities, and these effects are still evident in the peculiar ecological relationships among species living in modern Antarctic communities. The Eocene cooling event suppressed the activity of fish and crabs, which in turn reduced skeleton-crushing predation on invertebrates. Reduced predation allowed dense populations of ophiuroids (brittlestars) and crinoids (sea lilies) to appear and thrive in shallow-water settings at the end of the Eocene. These low-predation communities are preserved as dense fossil assemblages in the Eocene La Meseta Formation at Seymour Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Today, dense ophiuroid and crinoid populations are common in shallow-water habitats in Antarctica but have been eliminated by predators from similar habitats at temperate and tropical latitudes; their persistence in Antarctica to this day is an important ecological legacy of climatic cooling in the Eocene.
We are now exploring the effects of Eocene cooling on the more abundant mollusks and brachiopods. Along with colleagues from the University of Illinois, we are testing ecological and evolutionary hypotheses based on the predicted responses of mollusks and brachiopods to declining temperature and changing levels of predation. Seymour Island contains the only fossil outcrops readily accessible in Antarctica from this crucial period in Earth history. The La Meseta Formation on Seymour Island provides a unique opportunity to learn how climate change affected Antarctic marine communities.
In practical terms, global climate change is rapidly warming the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula. Recent ecological evidence suggests that skeleton-crushing predators are in the process of reinvading subtidal habitats, which is cause for concern. Understanding the response of the La Meseta faunas to global cooling in the Eocene, and running those patterns in rapid reverse, will help us predict decadal- to centennial-scale changes to the composition and structure of modern benthic communities in Antarctica.
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Click here for a video on climate change and the king-crab invasion.
Management of Coral Reefs
Are the small-scale biological and physical processes revealed by experimental studies reflected in long-term, regional dynamics? Supported by grants from NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program, we are conducting a long-term, biogeographic-scale study to track corals, sponges, algae and other sessile organisms in fully-protected zones (FPZs) and on reference reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Videographic and photographic records enable us to detect changes in coral cover, diversity, and recruitment success, and to determine the contributions of large- and small-scale disturbances to those changes. We are especially interested in the landscape- to regional-scale predictors of coral diversity and in the changeover from coral-dominated to seaweed-dominated reef communities. These topics are of special concern to managers and policymakers.
Ecosystem Development in Restored Salt Marshes
Salt marshes provide ecosystem services that include critical habitat for commercially important crustaceans and fish, filtration of terrestrial pollutants, and energy export to adjacent estuarine habitats.. The goal of most marsh restoration efforts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has been to replant the smooth cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, under the assumption has been that natural ecosystem function will follow the provision of structure at the waterÂ’s edge. This assumption generally has not been corroborated. The blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, is the basis of important commercial fisheries along the Gulf Coast and it is the keystone predator of salt marshes in the southeastern United States. Although Callinectes and many of their mobile prey species rapidly colonize created and restored marsh habitats, it is not clear whether natural or near-natural trophic relationships become established. Likewise, it is unclear when restored marshes begin to provide significant prey resources to support Callinectes populations. The marsh periwinkle, Littoraria irrorata, is an abundant and conspicuous herbivore in Spartina marshes along the Gulf Coast. Callinectes is a generalist predator, and it is the primary predator of Littoraria. By controlling Littoraria populations, Callinectes prevents cascading ecosystem effects, which under some conditions include overgrazing and the loss of Spartina. The long-term success of restoration efforts thus depends in large part on the establishment and maintenance of trophic linkages such as this Callinectes-Littoraria interaction.
The goal of this study is to compare the degree of ecosystem development in restored salt marshes of varying ages to nearby reference marshes in coastal Alabama. We are assessing community structure as faunal abundance, biomass and diversity, using flume traps and pit traps for the mobile epifauna, and sediment cores for the infauna. We are measuring energy flux through calorimetric analysis of crab gut contents. Predator-prey dynamics are assessed through a set of proven parameters of predation: (1) attacks on Littoraria in tethering experiments; (2) sublethal shell repair in Littoraria populations; (3) induced morphological defenses of Littoraria shells; and (4) the abundance of Callinectes. We are also measuring Spartina density, using standard quadrat-survey methods, to quantify physical structure and the potential of salt marshes of different ages to protect Littoraria by filtering out predatory crabs.
Click on Publications for access to pdfs
Toth, L. T., R. B. Aronson, S. V. Vollmer, J. W. Hobbs, D. H. Urrego, H. Cheng, I. C. Enochs, D. J. Combosch, R. van Woesik and I. G. Macintyre. 2012. ENSO drove 2500-year collapse of eastern Pacific coral reefs. Science 337:81−84.
Aronson, R. B., W. F. Precht, I. G. Macintyre and L. T. Toth. 2012. Catastrophe and the life span of coral reefs. Ecology 93:303–313.
Burman, S. G., R. B. Aronson and R. van Woesik. 2012. Biotic homogenization of coral assemblages along the Florida reef tract. Marine Ecology Progress Series 467:89–96.
Moody, R. M. and R. B. Aronson. 2012. Predator-induced defenses in a salt-marsh gastropod. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 413:78–86.
Aronson, R. B. 2011. Intrinsic and extrinsic drivers on coral reefs. Pages 610–612 in G. Cabioch et al., editors. Encyclopedia of modern coral reefs: structure, form and process. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
Aronson, R. B., I. G. Macintyre and W. F. Precht. 2011. Natural and anthropogenic catastrophe on the Belizean Barrier Reef. Pages 125–128 in M. L. D. Palomares and D. Pauly, editors. Too precious to drill: the marine biodiversity of Belize. Fisheries Centre Research Reports 19(6), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Aronson, R. B., S. Thatje, J. B. McClintock and K. A. Hughes. 2011. Anthropogenic impacts on marine ecosystems in Antarctica. The Yearbook in Ecology and Conservation Biology. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1223:82–107.
Dudgeon, S. R., R. B. Aronson, J. F. Bruno and W. F. Precht. 2010. Phase shifts and stable states on coral reefs. Marine Ecology Progress Series 413:201–216.
Precht, W. F., R. B. Aronson, R. M. Moody and L. S. Kaufman. 2010. Changing patterns of microhabiat utilization by the threespot damselfish, Stegastes planifrons, on Caribbean reefs. PLoS ONE 5(5):e10835. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010835. 8 pp.
Aronson, R. B. 2009. Metaphor, inference, and prediction in paleoecology: climate change and the Antarctic bottom fauna. Pages 177–194 in G. P. Dietl and K. W Flessa, editors. Conservation paleobiology: using the past to manage for the future. Paleontological Society Papers 15.
Aronson, R. B. 2009. Climate change and adaptation. Pages 3–6 in G. L. Nelson and I. Hronsky, editors. Sustainability 2009: the next horizon. American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY.
Aronson, R. B., I.G. Macintyre, A. M. Moesinger, W. F. Precht and M. R. Dardeau. 2009. History of reef coral assemblages on the rhomboid shoals of Belize. Smithsonian Contributions to the Marine Sciences 38:313–321.
Aronson, R. B., R. M. Moody, L. C. Ivany, D. B. Blake,J.E. Werner and A. Glass. 2009. Climate change and trophic response of the Antarctic bottom fauna. PLoSONE4(2):e4385. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004385. 6 pp.
Aronson, R. B. and W. F. Precht. 2009. Sustaining ecosystem services in the global coral reef crisis. Pages 48–55 in G. L. Nelson and I. Hronsky, editors. Sustainability 2009: the next horizon. American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY.
Robbart, M. L., K. J. P. Deslarzes, W. F. Precht, R. B. Aronson et al. 2009. Post-hurricane assessment (Hurricane Rita, September 2005) and recovery at the East Flower Garden Bank, northwest Gulf of Mexico. Proceedings of the Eleventh International Coral Reef Symposium, Fort Lauderdale, pp. 795–799.
Sutherland, W. J., W. M. Adams, R. B. Aronson et al. 2009. An assessment of the 100 questions of greatest importance to the conservation of global biological diversity. Conservation Biology 23:557–567.
Thatje, S. and R. B. Aronson. 2009. No future for the Antarctic Treaty? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7:175.
Zimmer, B., L. Duncan, D. R. Deis, M. L. Robbart, R. B. Aronson et al. 2009. Post-hurricane assessment of reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Proceedings of the Eleventh International Coral Reef Symposium, Fort Lauderdale, pp. 1156–1160.
Dodge, R. E., C. Birkeland, M. Hatziolos, J. Kleypas, S. R. Palumbi, O. Hoegh-Guldberg, R. van Woesik, J. C. Ogden, R. B. Aronson, B. D. Causey and F. Staub. 2008. A call to action for coral reefs (letter to the editor). Science 322:189–190.
Carpenter, K. E., M. Abrar, G. Aeby, R. B. Aronson et al. 2008. One-third of reef-building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts. Science 321:560–563.
Ivany, L. C., K. C. Lohmann, F. Hasiuk, D. B. Blake, A. Glass, R. B. Aronson and R. M. Moody. 2008. Eocene climate record of a high southern latitude continental shelf: SeymourIsland, Antarctica. Geological Society of America Bulletin 120:659-678.
Aronson, R. B. and S. P. Ellner. 2007. Species turnover on coral reefs: a probabilistic approach. Pages 61–84 in R. B. Aronson, editor. Geological approaches to coral reef ecology. Springer-Verlag, New York.
Aronson, R. B., S. Thatje, A. Clarke, L. S. Peck, D. B. Blake, C. D. Wilga and B. A. Seibel. 2007. Climate change and invasibility of the Antarctic benthos. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 38:129–154.
Moody, R. M. and R. B. Aronson. 2007. Trophic heterogeneity in salt marshes of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Marine Ecology Progress Series 331:49-65.
Aronson, R. B. and W. F. Precht. 2006. Conservation, precaution, and Caribbean reefs. Coral Reefs 25:441-450.
MacIntyre, I. G. and R. B. Aronson. 2006. Lithified and unlithified Mg-calcite precipitates in tropical reef environments. Journal of Sedimentary Research 76:81-90.
Precht, W. F. and R. B. Aronson. 2006. Death and resurrection of Caribbean coral reefs: a paleoecological perspective. Pp. 40-77, In: I. Ct and J. Reynolds (Eds.), Coral Reef Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
Aronson, R. B., I. G. Macintyre, S. A. Lewis and N. L. Hilbun. 2005. Emergent zonation and geographic convergence of coral reefs. Ecology 86:2586-2600.
Aronson, R. B., I. G. Macintyre and W. F. Precht. 2005. Event preservation in lagoonal reef systems. Geology 33:717-720.
Aronson, R. B., W. F. Precht, T. J. T. Murdoch and M. L. Robbart. 2005. Long-term persistence of coral assemblages on the Flower Garden Banks, northwestern Gulf of Mexico: implications for science and management. Gulf of Mexico Science 23:84-94.
Precht, W. F. and R. B. Aronson. 2004. Climate flickers and range shifts of reef corals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2:307-314.
Aronson, R. B., I. G. Macintyre, C. M. Wapnick and M. W. O'Neill. 2004. Phase shifts, alternative states, and the unprecedented convergence of two reef systems. Ecology 85:1876-1891.
Wapnick, C. M., W. F. Precht and R. B. Aronson. 2004. Millennial-scale dynamics of staghorn coral at Discovery Bay, Jamaica. Ecology Letters 7:354-361.
Aronson, R. B., I. G. Macintyre, W. F. Precht, T. J. T. Murdoch and C. M. Wapnick. 2002. The expanding scale of species turnover events on coral reefs in Belize. Ecological Monographs 72:233-249.
Aronson, R. B., W. F. Precht, M. A. Toscano and K. H. Koltes. 2002. The 1998 bleaching event and its aftermath on a coral reef in Belize. Marine Biology 141:435-447.
Aronson, R. B. and W. F. Precht. 2001. White-band disease and the changing face of Caribbean coral reefs. Hydrobiologia 460:25-38.
Aronson, R. B., K. L. Heck Jr. and J. F. Valentine. 2001. Measuring predation with tethering experiments. Marine Ecology Progress Series 214:311-312.
Aronson, R. B., W. F. Precht, I. G. Macintyre and T. J. T. Murdoch. 2000. Coral bleach-out in Belize. Nature 405:36.
Aronson, R. B. and W. F. Precht. 2000. Herbivory and algal dynamics on the coral reef at Discovery Bay, Jamaica. Limnology and Oceanography 45:251-255.
Murdoch, T. J. T. and R. B. Aronson. 1999. Scale-dependent spatial variability of coral assemblages along the Florida Reef Tract. Coral Reefs 18:341-351.
Aronson, R. B. and R. E. Plotnick. 1998. Scale-independent interpretations of macroevolutionary dynamics. Pages 430-450 in M. L. McKinney and J. A. Drake, eds. Biodiversity dynamics: turnover of populations, taxa and communities. Columbia University Press, New York.
Aronson, R. B., W. F. Precht and I. G. Macintyre. 1998. Succession and species replacement on a Holocene reef in the Belizean shelf lagoon. Coral Reefs 17:223-230.
Richardson, L. L., W. M. Goldberg, K. G. Kuta, R. B. Aronson et al. 1998. Florida's mystery coral killer identified. Nature 392:557-558.
Aronson, R. B., D. B. Blake and T. Oji. 1997. Retrograde community structure in the late Eocene of Antarctica. Geology 15:903-906.
Aronson, R. B. and W. F. Precht. 1997. Stasis, biological disturbance, and community structure of a Holocene coral reef. Paleobiology 23:326-346.
Aronson, R. B., P. J. Edmunds, W. F. Precht, D. W. Swanson and D. R. Levitan. 1994. Large-scale, long-term monitoring of Caribbean coral reefs: simple, quick, inexpensive techniques. Atoll Research Bulletin 421:1-19.