Climate-driven range extension of a sea urchin: inferring future trends by analysis of recent population dynamics


S. D. Ling, e-mail:


Patterns of climate-forced range shift in the marine environment are informed by investigating the population dynamics of an ecologically important sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii– Diadematidae) across its newly extended range in Tasmania (southeastern Australia). A growth model of C. rodgersii is developed allowing estimation of a sea urchin age profile and, in combination with abundance data, we correlate the sea urchin population dynamic with respect to environmental signals across the range extension region. Growth patterns did not vary across the extension region; however, there was a strong pattern of decreasing sea urchin age with increasing distance from the historic range. The sequential poleward discovery of the sea urchin, a pattern of declining age and a general poleward reduction in abundance along the eastern Tasmanian coastline are consistent with a model of range extension driven by recent change in patterns of larval dispersal. We explore this hypothesis by correlating C. rodgersii population characteristics with respect to the East Australian Current (EAC), i.e. the chief vector for poleward larval dispersal, and reveal patterns of declining sea urchin age and abundance with increasing distance from this oceanic feature. Furthermore, C. rodgersii is generally limited to sites where average winter temperatures are warmer than the cold threshold for its larval development. Potential dispersal and physiological mechanisms defining the range extension appear to be strongly coupled to the EAC which has undergone recent poleward advance and resulted in coastal warming in eastern Tasmania. Predicted climate change conditions for this region will favour continued population expansion of C. rodgersii not only via atmospheric-forced ocean warming, but also via ongoing intensification of the EAC driving continued poleward supply of larvae and heat.