Caribbean Acropora spp. corals have undergone a decline in cover since the second half of the twentieth century. Loss of these architecturally complex and fast-growing corals has resulted in significant, cascading changes to the character, diversity, and available eco spaces of Caribbean reefs. Few thriving Acropora spp. populations exist today in the Caribbean and western North Atlantic seas, and our limited ability to access data from reefs assessed via long-term monitoring efforts means that reef scientists are challenged to determine resilience and longevity of existing Acropora spp. reefs. Here we used multiple dating methods to measure reef longevity and determine whether Coral Gardens Reef, Belize, is a refuge for Acropora cervicornis against the backdrop of wider Caribbean decline. We used a new genetic-aging technique to identify sample sites, and radiocarbon and high-precision uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating techniques to test whether one of the largest populations of extant A. cervicornis in the western Caribbean is newly established after the 1980s, or represents a longer-lived, stable population. We did so with respect for ethical sampling of a threatened species. Our data show corals ranging in age from 1910 (14C) or 1915 (230Th) to at least November 2019. While we cannot exclude the possibility of short gaps in the residence of A. cervicornis earlier in the record, the data show consistent and sustained living coral throughout the 1980s and up to at least 2019. We suggest that Coral Gardens has served as a refuge for A. cervicornis and that identifying other, similar sites may be critical to efforts to grow, preserve, conserve, and seed besieged Caribbean reefs.
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Greer, Lisa; Clark, Tara; Waggoner, Tanner; Busch, James; Guilderson, Thomas P.; Wirth, Karl; Zhao, Jian-xin; and Curran, H. Allen, "Coral Gardens Reef, Belize: A Refugium in the Face of Caribbean-Wide Acropora Spp. Coral Decline" (2020). Geosciences: Faculty Publications, Smith College, Northampton, MA.