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Increased local retention of reef coral larvae as a result of ocean warming


Climate change will alter many aspects of the ecology of organisms, including dispersal patterns and population connectivity1. Understanding these changes is essential to predict future species distributions, estimate potential for adaptation, and design effective networks of protected areas2. In marine environments, dispersal is often accomplished by larvae. At higher temperatures, larvae develop faster3,4,5, but suffer higher mortality4,5,6, making the effect of temperature on dispersal difficult to predict. Here, we experimentally calibrate the effect of temperature on larval survival and settlement in a dynamic model of coral dispersal. Our findings imply that most reefs globally will experience several-fold increases in local retention of larvae due to ocean warming. This increase will be particularly pronounced for reefs with mean water residence times comparable to the time required for species to become competent to settle. Higher local retention rates strengthen the link between abundance and recruitment at the reef scale, suggesting that populations will be more responsive to local conservation actions. Higher rates of local retention and mortality will weaken connectivity between populations, and thus potentially retard recovery following severe disturbances that substantially deplete local populations. Conversely, on isolated reefs that are dependent on replenishment from local broodstock, increases in local retention may hasten recovery.

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Figure 1: Experimental survival and competence dynamics.
Figure 2: Relative increase in the proportion of larvae that attain competence while retained on the natal reef over a realistic range of mean residence times around a reef with a 2 °C increase (29 °C, green line) and 4 °C increase (31 °C, orange line).
Figure 3: Proportion of potential settlers (live larvae not yet flushed from the reef) for reefs with short (1 day, light blue), intermediate (2.5 days, dark blue) and long (10 days, green) mean residence times, using estimates for A. millepora (Supplementary Table 2).


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This study was supported by the Australian Research Council (DP110101168 to A.H.B. and J.F. and DP0880544 to S.R.C.), Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Fellowship to J.F., hosted by S.H.) and the State of Queensland (Smart Futures Fellowship to J.F.).

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J.F., A.H.B. and S.R.C. designed the experiments. J.F., A.H.B. and S.H. performed the experiments. J.F. and S.R.C. analysed and modelled the data. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joana Figueiredo.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Figueiredo, J., Baird, A., Harii, S. et al. Increased local retention of reef coral larvae as a result of ocean warming. Nature Clim Change 4, 498–502 (2014).

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