Coral Reef Ecology

While living coral reefs constitute only about 0.1% of the sea floor (about 250K square miles, an area about twice the size of
Colorado), they contain an estimated 25% of all marine species.  Now that is diversity!  Tropical rainforests with 12,000 orchids and a half million insects contain a larger number of species, but almost all of them are flowering plants and insects.  Coral reefs, some of which have been around continuously for 50 million years, have representative species from almost every major grouping of living organisms.  Coral reefs are also among the most productive naturally-occurring ecosystems found on earth.

It has been only since the development of modern SCUBA equipment in the late 1940s that significant numbers of scientists and recreational divers have been able to witness and study this small but significant portion of the marine environment.  These reefs exist only in shallow, continuously warm, clear and unpolluted seas—the very places many people choose for vacation get-aways. But are the reefs being “loved to death?” 

It is estimated that one billion people depend on coral reefs for their primary protein source, and the expanding world population is beginning to have major negative impacts on these reefs from: over-fishing; increased sedimentation from soil erosion from poorly managed logging operations; eutrophication from fertilizers and pesticides washed off land-based crops; and chemical toxins released into the seas either accidentally or on purpose.  These healthy coral reefs are getting sick; they are noticeably threatened and are diminishing in size.  It is estimated that 10% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost in the last 10-15 years.  There are only a few locations in the western Pacific that come near to representing those graphically displayed in Finding Nemo. 

The two semester-hour, intensive Coral Reef Ecology course taught here in Boulder and in the Caribbean over winter break emphasizes the organisms found on the reefs and the interactions these organisms have with one another.  After 24 hours of slide-illustrated and multimedia-enhanced lectures at CU, students will use low-impact SCUBA techniques to study the coral reefs of Cozumel, Mexico.  Being about 11,000 years old, these reefs contain only 10-20% of the diversity of organisms found in the best reefs of the Indo Pacific; but for the most part, they are still intact and representative of their more complex counterparts.

The prerequisite for this course is any college-level ecology course and SCUBA certification which can be obtained at the CU Recreational Center or locally in a commercial dive establishment.  By clicking on the links below one can access additional Coral Reef Ecology information:

General Information

 Course Syllabus and Paper Guidelines

 Suggested Paper Topics

Estimates of the Numbers of Extant Species

NOTE:  Other links to non-classroom information are available above, on the left blue border via "Links."

University of Colorado 
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
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