The distance travelled by marine larvae varies by seven orders of magnitude. Dispersal shapes marine biodiversity, and must be understood if marine systems are to be well managed. Because warmer temperatures quicken larval development, larval durations might be systematically shorter in the tropics relative to those at high latitudes. Nevertheless, life history and hydrodynamics also covary with latitude—these also affect dispersal, precluding any clear expectation of how dispersal changes at a global scale. Here we combine data from the literature encompassing >750 marine organisms from seven phyla with oceanographic data on current speeds, to quantify the overall latitudinal gradient in larval dispersal distance. We find that planktonic duration increased with latitude, confirming predictions that temperature effects outweigh all others across global scales. However, while tropical species have the shortest planktonic durations, realized dispersal distances were predicted to be greatest in the tropics and at high latitudes, and lowest at mid-latitudes. At high latitudes, greater dispersal distances were driven by moderate current speed and longer planktonic durations. In the tropics, fast currents overwhelmed the effect of short planktonic durations. Our results contradict previous hypotheses based on biology or physics alone; rather, biology and physics together shape marine dispersal patterns.
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Compiled data are available as Supplementary Information.
All code is available at Github (https://github.com/MarianaAlvarezNoriega/Marine_invertebrate_dispersal).
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We thank the Australian Research Council for financial support. We thank C. Cook, H. Ritchie, J. Burgin, K. Davis and M. Thompson for compiling the data. This study has been conducted using EU Copernicus Marine Service Information.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 Latitudinal gradients in egg size (predictions from the phylogenetically controlled model).
Panel a, Egg size (μm) of planktotrophic larvae across latitudes. Panel b, Egg size (μm) of lecithotrophic larvae across latitudes. The gradient from dark to light red shows large to small egg sizes. Note that the scale differs between panels. White circles show the distribution of studies from which data was obtained. Larger circles indicate a higher number of studies.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Probability that planktonic larvae are planktotrophic vs. lecithotrophic across latitudes (predictions from the phylogenetically controlled model).
The gradient from dark red to light red shows higher to lower probability that planktonic larvae are feeding. Grey circles (planktotrophic larvae) and triangles (lecithotrophic larvae) show the distribution of studies from which data was obtained. Larger shapes indicate a higher number of studies, which range from 1 to 26 for planktotrophic larvae and from 1 to 16 for lecithotrophic larvae.
Extended Data Fig. 3 Latitudinal gradients in planktonic duration (predictions from the phylogenetically controlled model).
Panel a, Planktonic duration (days) of planktotrophic larvae across latitudes. Panel b, Planktonic duration (days) of lecithotrophic larvae across latitudes. The gradient from dark to light red shows long to short planktonic durations. Note that the scale differs between panels. White circles show the distribution of studies from which data was obtained. Larger circles indicate a higher number of studies.
Extended Data Fig. 4 Predicted planktonic durations (days; log10-scale) across latitudes, weighted by the predicted proportion of each developmental mode and incorporating changes in egg size (predictions from phylogenetically controlled models).
The grey lines show predictions from 2000 random values from the models’ posterior distributions. The blue line shows median predictions and the blue ribbon shows the 95% credible interval.
Predictions obtained from the Mercator model73.
Data obtained from Laurindo et al.74
Proportional change in predicted dispersal distance with a 10% increase in the probability that a larva is planktotrophic (Panel a), a 10% increase in egg size (in log-scale) (Panel b), a 10% increase in the effect of temperature on planktonic duration (with absolute latitude as a proxy) (Panel c), and a 10% increase in mean annual surface speed (Panel d). White colour indicates areas where the proportional change in the predicted dispersal distance is equal to the proportional change in the dispersal driver of interest, blue colours show areas it is larger (that is a 10% increase in the driver of interest results in a > 10% increase in predicted dispersal distance), and red colours show areas where it is smaller (that is a 10% increase in the driver of interest results in a < 10% increase in predicted dispersal distance). Panel d used data from surface drifters74.
Extended Data Fig. 8 Ratio of the original predicted dispersal distance (with all dispersal drivers varying across latitudes) divided by the predicted dispersal distance for the case when one of the factors is kept constant across latitudes (at its mean value across latitudes 55°S to 55°N).
In panel a, the proportion of larvae being planktotrophic is kept constant; in panel b, the effect of egg size is kept constant; in panel c, the effect of planktonic duration is kept constant; and in panel d, mean annual current speed is kept at its mean across space. Blue colours show locations where dispersal would be underestimated if the dispersal driver of interest was assumed to stay constant across space (ratios > 1), red colours show locations where dispersal distance would be overestimated if the dispersal driver of interest was assumed to stay constant across space (ratios < 1). White areas show locations with ratios ≈1 (that is where the driver of interest occurs at its mean value). Panel d used data from surface drifters74.
Sensitivity analysis. Results from phylogenetically uncontrolled models. Caveats. Temperature scaling on larval duration among species. Supplementary Figs. 1–9, Table 1, information and references.
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Álvarez-Noriega, M., Burgess, S.C., Byers, J.E. et al. Global biogeography of marine dispersal potential. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1196–1203 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1238-y