Coral Reefs Seen as General Cradles of Evolution


Are beautiful coral reefs Charles Darwin’s best friends? Perhaps so, for according to one team of paleontologists, they serve as “general cradles of evolution.”

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The scientists undertook an “all-embracing study” to review the paleontological history of coral reefs, reviewing previous research and adding more of their own. The goal of the work was to determine in which environment more than 6,500 marine genera evolved—based on where the oldest fossils appeared. After years of review, the team concluded that nearly 1,500 marine genera appear to have originated in reef environments.

“We were surprised to see how large the cradle effect really is,” said Museum für Naturkunde paleontologist Wolfgang Kiessling, lead author of the paper presenting the research. Scientists previously believed many reef species had evolved in shallow water, later transitioning to the reef environment.

Reflecting on the paper, Florida Institute of Technology paleontologist Richard Aronson argued that “if modern reefs continue to degrade, that could have long-term evolutionary consequences for other ecosystems by cutting off the supply of new biodiversity.”

But the location of a fossil in the fossil record only tells us where a fossil was buried—and, at most, may only suggest the sort of environment in which a creature was living when it was preserved—not where, when, or whether a creature evolved. And while an evolutionist may decide that a species’ “oldest” fossils were buried in reef environments, a creationist would consider the same data and conclude not that these fossils were older, but only that these fossils were buried lower in the fossil record.

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