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Keywords:

  • connectivity;
  • dispersal;
  • ecology;
  • marine;
  • metapopulation;
  • parentage analysis

Abstract

Characterizing patterns of larval dispersal is essential to understanding the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of marine metapopulations. Recent research has measured local dispersal within populations, but the development of marine dispersal kernels from empirical data remains a challenge. We propose a framework to move beyond point estimates of dispersal towards the approximation of a simple dispersal kernel, based on the hypothesis that the structure of the seascape is a primary predictor of realized dispersal patterns. Using the coral reef fish Elacatinus lori as a study organism, we use genetic parentage analysis to estimate self-recruitment at a small spatial scale (<1 km). Next, we determine which simple kernel explains the observed self-recruitment, given the influx of larvae from reef habitat patches in the seascape at a large spatial scale (up to 35 km). Finally, we complete parentage analyses at six additional sites to test for export from the focal site and compare these observed dispersal data within the metapopulation to the predicted dispersal kernel. We find 4.6% self-recruitment (CI95%: ±3.0%) in the focal population, which is explained by the exponential kernel y = 0.915x (CI95%: y = 0.865x, y = 0.965x), given the seascape. Additional parentage analyses showed low levels of export to nearby sites, and the best-fit line through the observed dispersal proportions also revealed a declining function y = 0.77x. This study lends direct support to the hypothesis that the probability of larval dispersal declines rapidly with distance in Atlantic gobies in continuously distributed habitat, just as it does in the Indo-Pacific damselfishes in patchily distributed habitat.