Larval fish dispersal in a coral-reef seascape


Larval dispersal is a critical yet enigmatic process in the persistence and productivity of marine metapopulations. Empirical data on larval dispersal remain scarce, hindering the use of spatial management tools in efforts to sustain ocean biodiversity and fisheries. Here we document dispersal among subpopulations of clownfish (Amphiprion percula) and butterflyfish (Chaetodon vagabundus) from eight sites across a large seascape (10,000 km2) in Papua New Guinea across 2 years. Dispersal of clownfish was consistent between years, with mean observed dispersal distances of 15 km and 10 km in 2009 and 2011, respectively. A Laplacian statistical distribution (the dispersal kernel) predicted a mean dispersal distance of 13–19 km, with 90% of settlement occurring within 31–43 km. Mean dispersal distances were considerably greater (43–64 km) for butterflyfish, with kernels declining only gradually from spawning locations. We demonstrate that dispersal can be measured on spatial scales sufficient to inform the design of and test the performance of marine reserve networks.

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Figure 1: Network diagram of larval dispersal of two reef fish species among study sites within Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.
Figure 2: Larval dispersal kernels for two reef fish species from Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.
Figure 3: Larval connectivity matrices for A. percula in Kimbe Bay.


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We thank the volunteers who dedicated long hours in the water collecting tissue samples: R. Brooker, S. Choukroun, P. Costello, J. Davies, D. Dixson, K. Furby, M. Giru, B. Grover, J. Hill, N. Jones, K. McMahon, M. Noble, S. Noonan, N. Raventos Klein, M. Pinsky, J. Roberts, J. Smith, N. Tolou, M. Takahashi, P. Waldie and M. White; and the people of the villages on the shores of Kimbe Bay who welcomed us into their communities and supported this research: Kilu-Tamare, Lolobau, Tairobe and Vaiaku. This research would not have been possible without the support of the Walindi Plantation Resort, the skipper and crew of MV Febrina, Mahonia Na Dari Research and Conservation Centre, and The Nature Conservancy. This work was supported by Australian Research Council funding to G.P.J., the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (baseline research funds to M.L.B. and a Special Partnership Collaborative Fellowship to M.L.B. and P.S.-A.) and NSF grants OCE0928442 and OCE1031256 to S.R.T.

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G.R.A., M.L.B., G.P.J., S.P. and S.R.T designed the study. All authors contributed to field work and editing of the manuscript. M.B., H.B.H., S.P., M.A.P., P.S.-A. and S.P. conducted microsatellite DNA analyses. G.R.A. and M.B. developed the dispersal kernel model. M.B., H.H. and S.R.T. created figures.

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Correspondence to Simon R. Thorrold.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Tables 1–6; Supplementary Figures 1,2; Supplementary Methods (PDF 618 kb)

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Almany, G., Planes, S., Thorrold, S. et al. Larval fish dispersal in a coral-reef seascape. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0148 (2017).

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