Larval retention and recruitment in an island population of a coral-reef fish

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For close to a century, recruitment of larvae to a local population has been widely accepted as a primary determinant of marine population dynamics1,2. However, progress in elucidating the causes of recruitment variability has been greatly impeded by our ignorance of the sources of recruits. Although it is often assumed that recruitment is independent of local reproduction3,4,5,6, there is increasing circumstantial evidence that physical7,8 and behavioural9,10 mechanisms could facilitate larval retention near source populations. To develop a direct method for reconstructing the dispersal history of recruiting larvae, we put forward the hypothesis that differences in nutrient and trace-element concentrations between coastal and open oceans could result in quantifiable differences in growth rate and elemental composition between larvae developing in coastal waters (locally retained) and larvae developing in open ocean waters (produced in distant locations). Using this method, we show that recruitment to an island population of a widely distributed coral-reef fish may often result from local retention on leeward reefs. This result has implications for fisheries management and marine reserve design, because rates of dispersal between marine populations—and thus recruitment to exploited populations—could be much lower than currently assumed.

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Figure 1: Results of the canonical discriminant analysis of larval source population signatures.
Figure 2: Relationship between larval retention and the intensity of recruitment.


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We thank M. Sheehy for assistance with sample collection, L. Linn, P. Martin and T. Mashiotta for assistance with ICP-MS analyses, and N. Barbee, S. Cooper, S. Gaines, K. Lafferty and J. Shima for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the US NOAA-National Undersea Research Program, the US National Science Foundation, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

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Correspondence to Stephen E. Swearer.

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Swearer, S., Caselle, J., Lea, D. et al. Larval retention and recruitment in an island population of a coral-reef fish. Nature 402, 799–802 (1999) doi:10.1038/45533

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