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Keywords:

  • connectivity matrix;
  • conservation genetics;
  • dispersal;
  • ecological genetics;
  • evolutionary theory;
  • fish

Understanding the scale of dispersal is an important consideration in the conservation and management of many species. However, in species in which the high-dispersal stage is characterized by tiny gametes or offspring, it may be difficult to estimate dispersal directly. This is the case for many marine species, whose pelagic larvae are dispersed by ocean currents by several days or weeks before beginning a benthic, more sedentary, adult stage. As consequence of the high-dispersal larval stage, many marine species have low genetic structure on large spatial scales (Waples 1998; Hellberg 2007). Despite the high capacity for dispersal, some tagging studies have found that a surprising number of larvae recruit into the population they were released from (self-recruitment). However, estimates of self-recruitment are not informative about mean dispersal between subpopulations. To what extent are limited dispersal estimates from tagging studies compatible with high potential for dispersal and low genetic structure? In this issue, a study on five species of coral reef fish used isolation by distance (IBD) between individuals to estimate mean dispersal distances (Puebla et al. 2012). They found that mean dispersal was unexpectedly small (<50 km), given relatively low IBD slopes and long pelagic durations. This study demonstrates how low genetic structure is compatible with limited dispersal in marine species. A comprehensive understanding of dispersal in marine species will involve integrating methods that estimate dispersal over different spatial and temporal scales. Genomic data may increase power to resolve these issues but must be applied carefully to this question.