Research Overview

How do different factors interact to cause a mass extinction?

Paleontologists traditionally look for prominent environmental events to explain pulses of speciation and extinction in the fossil record. But ecological insight suggests that a more complex series of cascading events stretching over a million years or more are most likely responsible, including not only environmental change but also biological interactions and the phenomenon of ‘extinction debt’ developed for conservation biology. I am examining changes in functional biology and life history patterns to better understand the chronology of Caribbean extinctions over the past 5 million years.

Why does the Indo-West Pacific have so many more species than the Caribbean?

Our recent work on bryozoans demonstrates that species richness was similar in both regions 5 million years ago, and the same was apparently true for reef corals.  Ongoing work suggests that the Mediterranean host similar species diversity before it dried up at about the same time. The obvious implication is that the great differences in species diversity today between the Caribbean and Mediterranean versus the Indo-West Pacific is due mass extinction in the Caribbean and Mediterranean rather than, has long been speculated, higher speciation rates in the Pacific.

How and when has the trajectory of human activities on the oceans transitioned from predominantly local to global impacts and what is their relative importance today?

We have long known that fishing intensified sufficiently by the time of the Roman Empire to drastically deplete Mediterranean fish stocks but have only recently documented the deep historical roots of overfishing worldwide. My group is working to untangle the history of human disturbance and the comparative consequences, of fishing, land use, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change on Caribbean coral reef ecosystems. The central question is to what extent local management to regulate and diminish fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution on coral reefs can increase their resilience to coral bleaching, disease, and acidification due to the anthropogenic rise in CO2?

How distinct is the Caribbean marine biota from other tropical seas?

The Caribbean is a Mediterranean sea landlocked to the north, west, and south, and isolated from all other tropical oceans for 5 to 3 million years. Biotas in many groups are also deeply divergent as demonstrated especially for reef corals, but also for other groups such as bryozoans. I am interested in the extent to which this isolation has affected the ability of Caribbean biotas to cope with human disturbance. For example, the recent supposedly global extreme coral bleaching events did not occur in the Caribbean, whereas disease outbreaks appear to be more pervasive and fatal to Caribbean invertebrates such as corals and sea urchins than elsewhere in the tropics.


B. A. The George Washington University, 1965

M. A. The George Washington University, 1968

M. Phil. Yale University, 1970

Ph. D. Yale University, 1971

Selected Publications

DiMartino E, Jackson JBC, Taylor PD, Johnson KG (2018) Differences in extinction rates drove modern geographic patters of tropical marine biodiversity. Science Advances 4, eaaq150

Jackson JBC, Chapple S. (2018) Breakpoint: Reckoning with America’s Environmental Crises. Yale University Press

McClenachan L, O’Connor G, Neal BP, Pandolfi JM, Jackson JBC (2017) Ghost reefs: Nautical Charts document large spatial scale reef loss over 240 years. Science Advances 3: e1603155.

Simpson C, Jackson JBC, Hererra-Cubilla (2017) Evolutionary determinants of morphological    polymorphism in colonial animals. The American Naturalist 190:

 Jackson JBC, Donovan M, Cramer K, Lam V (eds) (2014) Status and trends of Caribbean coral reefs: 1970-2012. International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Gland, Switzerland.

O’Dea A, Lessios, Coates AG, Eytan RI, et al. and Jackson JBC (2016) Formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Science Advances 2:e1600883:12 pp

O’Dea A, Lessios, Coates AG, Eytan RI, et al. and Jackson JBC (2016) Formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Science Advances 2:e1600883:12 pp

Cramer K, Jackson JBC, Angioletti C, Leonard-Pingell J & Guilderson T (2012) Anthropogenic mortality on coral reefs in Caribbean Panama predates coral disease and bleaching. Ecology Letters doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01768.x

Jackson JBC & Jacquet J (2011) The shifting baselines syndrome: perception, deception, and the future of our oceans. Pp. 128-141 in Ecosystem Approaches to Fisheries: A Global Perspective, V  Christensen & J Maclean (eds) Cambridge University Press

Jackson JBC, Alexander K, Sala E (eds.) (2011) Shifting Baselines in Fisheries: Using the Past to Manage the Future. Island Press, Washington DC

Smith JT & Jackson JBC (2009) Ecology of extreme faunal turnover of tropical American scallops. Paleobiology 35:77-93

Johnson KG, Jackson JBC, & Budd AF (2008) Caribbean reef development was independent of coral diversity over 28 million years. Science 319:1521-1523

Jackson JBC (2008) Evolution and extinction in the brave new ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 105 (Suppl. 1):11458-11465

Lotze HK, Lenihan HS, Bourque BJ, Bradbury RH, Cooke RG, Kay MC, Kidwell SM, Kirby MX, Peterson CH & Jackson JBC (2006) Depletion, degradation, and recovery potential of estuaries and coastal seas. Science 312:1806-1809

Jackson JBC and 17 others (2001) Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293:629-638

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