Anemonefishes are often encountered on Singapore shores, but these are different from those in the study.
Anemonefish parents live in a particular sea anemone and spawn eggs that are attached to the seafloor. About a week later, larvae hatch from the eggs and make their way into the great, open ocean. After about two weeks, juvenile fish find a comfortable-looking sea anemone, set up housekeeping, and settle in for the rest of their lives.
What this study does for the first time is to demonstrate that a percentage of larvae spawned on one marine reserve actually make it to another marine reserve up to 35 km away.
Such data helps policymakers in deciding how to set up MPA networks to optimize connectivity. This has been described as The Goldilocks Effect. Create an MPA that’s too small and too few larvae settle within the MPA to sustain the population. Create an MPA that’s too big and all the juveniles remain in the reserves, out of the bounds of commercial fisheries. The trick is to create an MPA network that’s just right.
Connectivity In Marine Fish Populations: Larvae Spawned In Marine Reserves Can Travel Long Distances
ScienceDaily 25 Mar 09;
Children of baby boomers aren’t the only ones who have taken to setting up home far from where their parents live. A new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents how larval dispersal connects marine fish populations in a network of marine protected areas – information that is critical for fisheries managers.
“What this study does for the first time is to demonstrate that a percentage of larvae spawned on one marine reserve actually make it to another marine reserve up to 35 km away,” says Simon Thorrold, co-author of the study and a senior scientist in the Biology Department of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Thorrold and his colleagues from the French National Center for Scientific Research and James Cook University in Australia studied the clownfish (Amphiprion percula) in Kimbe Island, New Britain, Papua New Guinea. This coral reef fish is the same species as Disney’s famed Nemo, but real clownfish have a far different life history than animated ones. Clownfish parents live in a particular sea anemone and spawn eggs that are attached to the seafloor. About a week later, larvae hatch from the eggs and spread their fins, making their way into the great, open ocean.
Until now, the question of just how far and wide these larval fish travel, or disperse, has been the subject of much theoretical modeling, but very little empirical evidence. After about two weeks, juvenile clownfish find a comfortable-looking sea anemone, set up housekeeping, and settle in with a mate for the rest of their lives.
Using a technique related to DNA fingerprinting called DNA parentage analysis, Thorrold and his colleagues studied genetic markers in more than 500 potential clownfish parents from Kimbe Island and 400 newly settled juveniles from Kimbe Island and surrounding marine reserves. Astonishingly, they were able to identify the parents of 30 percent of the juveniles. Thorrold adds, “It is by far the biggest application of DNA parentage analysis on fish populations in the marine environment.”
This DNA parentage analysis allowed Thorrold and his colleagues to map and calculate the dispersal of 122 clownfish with detail never before achieved in the marine fish populations. Because they knew the exact locations of both the natal anemone and the anemone in which the juvenile settled, dispersal was simply the distance between those two hosts. According to Thorrold, “Our accuracy of dispersal is as accurate as the GPS measurements of the anemones.”
Thorrold and his colleagues found juveniles as far away as 35 km from their natal lagoons. These wayward offspring play an important role in the ecosystem, contributing to the resilience of populations in distant reserves. The propensity for long-distance travel affects more than just a few meandering larvae: long-distance dispersers accounted for up to 10 percent of the populations they joined.
The study also showed surprising consistency in the proportion of juveniles returning to the lagoon where they were spawned. Regardless of time of year, species of anemone, or natal lagoon, 40 percent of the juveniles seemed somehow hardwired to settle close to their parents, the literal apple not falling far from the tree. These offspring also play a key role in population dynamics, sustaining the populations in the lagoons where they were spawned.
The research has significant implications for management of marine protected areas (MPAs), which are regions where fishing is prohibited. Implementation of MPA networks are widely recommended by policy makers as a way to conserve biodiversity in marine environments and as a hedge against over-fishing. However, as Thorrold points out, “Honestly, the policy has gotten a bit ahead of the science. What’s important about this study is that it brings a scientific and quantitative understanding to the design of marine protected areas.”
In the ecological terms, connectivity doesn’t refer to how many wireless devices one owns, but rather the exchange of individuals among geographically separated populations. Setting up MPA networks to optimize connectivity is something policymakers grapple with. Thorrold describes this as The Goldilocks Effect. Create an MPA that’s too small and too few larvae settle within the MPA to sustain the population. Create an MPA that’s too big and all the juveniles remain in the reserves, out of the bounds of commercial fisheries. The trick is to create an MPA network that’s just right.
Based on the accurate dispersal data from the study and the distances between marine preserves in Kimbe Bay, Thorrold notes, “This is the first indication that networks of marine preserves might actually function as we hoped.” He adds, “Connectivity in the marine environment is such a hot topic because you really need to know [dispersal] information for effective conservation, but we have not had it up to now.”
Thorrold and his colleagues are currently expanding their work to include species that spawn eggs directly into the pelagic ocean, like the commercially important groupers and snappers. Thorrold also recognizes that the DNA parentage analysis that he and his colleagues have performed around Kimbe Island is custom made for addressing fundamental questions about the evolutionary factors that established dispersal patterns in marine fish.
Hold the phone line, your kids may not be calling, but Thorrold and his colleagues are dialing in answers.
This research was supported by the Australian Research Council, the Coral Reef Initiatives for the Pacific (CRISP), the Global Environmental Facility CRTR Connectivity Working Group, the National Science Foundation, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Nature Conservancy, Total Foundation, James Cook University, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Marine parks save fish
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
ScienceAlert 26 Mar 09;
New evidence that networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) can play a big role in protecting threatened coral reef fish and other marine species from local extinction has been found by an international research team.
In a world-first experiment, the researchers used DNA fingerprinting to show that baby orange clownfish have remarkable homing abilities, with many finding their way back to home reefs after being swept out to sea as hatchlings.
In the process they discovered some baby clownfish had travelled to reefs as much as 35 kilometres distant from the reef where they were spawned – a spectacular feat considering they were only a few millimetres in length.
The research was carried out in Kimbe Bay, New Britain in Papua New Guinea, a region of relatively pristine coral reefs where it is proposed to set up a network of marine reserves.
“Basically, we found that MPA networks can help sustain resident fish populations both by local replenishment and by fish larvae coming in from other neighbouring reserves,” says Professor Geoff Jones of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University.
“Using their parent’s DNA to identify where they had come from, we have been able to show that about 40 per cent of baby clownfish that settle in a marine reserve are those that have returned home. In addition, the parents within one marine reserve can explain up to 10 per cent of the baby fish settling in reserves 20-30km away.
“This shows not only how effective a marine protected area can be for conserving the breeding stock on a particular reef – but also how important it is to have a network of protected reefs at the right distance which can help to re-stock one another.”
In another first, the team has demonstrated the power of parental DNA analysis for measuring the health and viability of fish populations in marine protected areas.
Because orange clownfish live in sea anemones and because the locations of all the anemone clumps around Kimbe island were known, the team was able to collect DNA from 506 adult clownfish living around the island – which they believe to be its entire population.
They then tested juvenile fish which had recently returned from the open sea and settled on the reef in order to establish their parentage, finding that about 40 per cent were locally-bred while the remainder had come from other reefs.
“This level of recruitment to the home reef was remarkably stable over time. It shows both the value of having a protected area to maintain the local fish population – and also the importance of having a network of protected areas within a range that allows them to replenish one another’s fish populations,” Professor Jones says.
After they are hatched from the egg, the baby clownfish are swept out to sea on the local currents and then spend an average of 11 days trying to make their way back to their home reef or find a new one to settle on. In this time they may travel 20 or 30 kilometres from their home reef as the crow flies – and in one remarkable case, 35 kilometres. This indicates a tiny fish only 5mm long can travel 3km or more a day.
Other species, such as butterflyfish, spend up to 35 days at sea as babies and can potentially cover even greater distances. However, many butterflyfish babies also return to home reefs.
The project’s findings support the growing view that a network of marine reserves is more effective for maintaining a diversity of fish and other marine species than a single, isolated park or no-fishing area.
“The current theory holds that even quite low rates of migration between reefs are enough to prevent certain fish species from becoming locally extinct – and this research bears that out,” Professor Jones says.
“Given the mounting evidence worldwide that populations of many small reef fish are under threat, we think parental DNA analysis offers a new tool to help protect them.”
The report Larval dispersal connects fish populations in a network of marine protected areas by Serge Planes (Perpignan University), Geoff Jones and Simon Thorrold (Woods Hole) is published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).