We analyze a new compilation of Neogene to Recent (22-0 Ma) Caribbean coral occurrences to determine how ecological and life history traits at the population level affect long-term evolutionary patterns. The compilation consists of occurrences of 175 species and 49 genera in one continuous (> 5 m.y.) sequence and 22 scattered sites across the Caribbean region. Previous study of evolutionary rates using these data has shown that both extinction and origination were accelerated between 4 and 1 Ma, resulting in large-scale faunal turnover. Categories for three morphological and two reproductive variables (colony size, colony shape, and corallite size; and sex, and mode of embryonic development; respectively) are assigned to each species in the compilation. Comparisons of the ecological variables with evolutionary rates using randomization procedures and modified analysis of variance show that only colony size was strongly related to rates of extinction and origination during either normal background times or times of accelerated extinction. Extinction rates were lower in species with large colonies, because species with small massive colonies tend to live in small, short-lived populations with highly fluctuating recruitment rates. During turnover, extinction rates increased disproportionately in species with small colonies. Origination rates are found to be less related to ecological variables, although species with small massive colonies originated at higher rates prior to turnover.
Accelerated turnover may have therefore involved an increase in local population extinction rates that caused increased rates of both species extinction and origination across the entire fauna. Since extinction rates accelerated disproportionately with respect to colony size, the overall result was a relative increase in species with large colonies. After severe disturbance, one might expect that populations of species with large colonies and high rates of fragmentation would be more likely to escape extinction, because of larger population sizes, longer generation times, and more constant rates of population increase. The modern Caribbean reef-coral fauna is therefore structured by large, long-lived colonies that are robust to regional environmental change. Many of the very taxa that allowed reef communities to escape collapse in the past are declining today in response to anthropogenic disturbances, suggesting that Caribbean reef communities may be less resilient in the future in response to ongoing environmental perturbations.