Right after most coral reef fish hatch, they join a swirling sea of plankton as tiny, transparent larvae. Then currents, winds and waves disperse them, frequently to different reefs.
During seven years of surveys of coral reef-dwelling clownfish, scientists measured how the dispersal of larvae varied over the years and seasonally, including during monsoons, according Rutgers-led research in the journal Molecular Ecology. They found that larvae dispersal varied a lot on both timescales.
Their research suggests that when scientists account for dispersal variability rather than just using data from a single year or an average over time, estimates of the persistence of fish populations will be lower.
“That means when we don’t account for dispersal variability, we could be overestimating the stability of coral reef fish populations,” said lead author Katrina A. Catalano, a doctoral student in the lab of senior author Malin L. Pinsky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “If we study dispersal variability in more species over greater timescales, we will better understand what causes the variation and can better design protected areas for the conservation of species.”