The Origin of Modern Atolls: Challenging Darwin’s Deeply Ingrained Theory

Figure 2  Darwin's subsidence model for the formation of (a) fringing reefs, (b) barrier reefs, and (c) atolls. The left subpanels show 2D models adapted from Darwin (1842). The center and right subpanels show maps from Darwin (1842) and the corresponding Google Earth satellite images, respectively, for the Vanikoro fringing reef, Solomon Islands (panel a, subpanels ii and iii); the Chuuck barrier reef, Micronesia (panel b, subpanels ii and iii); and Peros Banhos Atoll, Chagos Archipelago (panel c, subpanels ii and iii). Subpanels i and ii in all panels adapted from Darwin (1842).

The Origin of Modern Atolls: Challenging Darwin’s Deeply Ingrained Theory | Annual Review of Marine Science (

Annual Review of Marine Science


In 1842, Darwin identified three types of reefs: fringing reefs, which are directly attached to volcanic islands; barrier reefs, which are separated from volcanic islands by lagoons; and ring reefs, which enclose only a lagoon and are defined as atolls. Moreover, he linked these reef types through an evolutionary model in which an atoll is the logical end point of a subsiding volcanic edifice, as he was unaware of Quaternary glaciations. As an alternative, starting in the 1930s, several authors proposed the antecedent karst model; in this model, atolls formed as a direct interaction between subsidence and karst dissolution that occurred preferentially in the bank interiors rather than on their margins through exposure during glacial lowstands of sea level. Atolls then developed during deglacial reflooding of the glacial karstic morphologies by preferential stacked coral-reef growth along their margins. Here, a comprehensive new model is proposed, based on the antecedent karst model and well-established sea-level fluctuations during the last 5 million years, by demonstrating that most modern atolls from the Maldives Archipelago and from the tropical Pacific and southwest Indian Oceans are rooted on top of late Pliocene flat-topped banks. The volcanic basement, therefore, has had no influence on the late Quaternary development of these flat-topped banks into modern atolls. During the multiple glacial sea-level lowstands that intensified throughout the Quaternary, the tops of these banks were karstified; then, during each of the five mid-to-late Brunhes deglaciations, coral reoccupied their raised margins and grew vertically, keeping up with sea-level rise and creating the modern atolls.

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Vol. 13:537-573 (Volume publication date January 2021) First published as a Review in Advance on September 25, 2020

André W. Droxler1 and Stéphan J. Jorry2

1Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences, Rice University, Houston, Texas 77005, USA; email:

2Marine Geosciences, IFREMER, 29280 Plouzané, France


atoll originflat-topped banksea levelkarstificationPlio-PleistoceneIndian OceanPacific OceanMaldives

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