- 1For aquatic species with highly dispersive offspring, the addition of new individuals into an area (recruitment) is a key process in determining local population size so understanding the causes of recruitment variability is critical. While three general causative mechanisms have been identified (the supply of individuals, habitat selection and mortality), we have a limited understanding of how variation in each is generated, and the consequences this may have for the spatial and temporal distribution of recruits.
- 2We examined whether active habitat selection during settlement could be the cause of variability in populations of two diadromous fish species using a field survey and laboratory-based choice experiments. If larval behaviour is important, we predicted there would be inter-specific differences in abundance between sites during the survey, and that larvae would prefer water collected from sites with higher conspecific abundances during the experiments.
- 3During the field survey, significant differences were detected between two rivers (the Cumberland and Grey), with one species (Galaxias maculatus) found in higher abundances at one site (the Cumberland River) while comparable numbers of a closely related species (Galaxias brevipinnis) were caught at both sites. Laboratory choice experiments were conducted to determine whether larval preferences during settlement could be the cause of these differences. G. maculatus larvae showed a preference for freshwater over saltwater, indicating that the fish may be responding to reduced salinities around river mouths during settlement. The results of a second experiment were consistent with the notion that larval preferences could be the mechanism driving differences in the populations of the two rivers, with G. maculatus preferring water collected from the Cumberland River while G. brevipinnis did not prefer water from either river.
- 4These results demonstrate that active habitat selection may be important in establishing spatial patterns of larvae at settlement, and that multiple cues are likely to be involved. This study also demonstrates that the behaviours exhibited by individuals can strongly influence the structure and dynamics of populations of aquatic species with complex life cycles.