Characteristics of Settling Coral Reef Fish Are Related to Recruitment Timing and Success
Many marine populations exhibit high variability in the recruitment of young into the population. While environmental cycles and oceanography explain some patterns of replenishment, the role of other growth-related processes in influencing settlement and recruitment is less clear. Examination of a 65-mo. time series of recruitment of a common coral reef fish, Stegastes partitus, to the reefs of the upper Florida Keys revealed that during peak recruitment months, settlement stage larvae arriving during dark lunar phases grew faster as larvae and were larger at settlement compared to those settling during the light lunar phases. However, the strength and direction of early trait-mediated selective mortality also varied by settlement lunar phase such that the early life history traits of 2–4 week old recruit survivors that settled across the lunar cycle converged to more similar values. Similarly, within peak settlement periods, early life history traits of settling larvae and selective mortality of recruits varied by the magnitude of the settlement event: larvae settling in larger events had longer PLDs and consequently were larger at settlement than those settling in smaller pulses. Traits also varied by recruitment habitat: recruits surviving in live coral habitat (vs rubble) or areas with higher densities of adult conspecifics were those that were larger at settlement. Reef habitats, especially those with high densities of territorial conspecifics, are more challenging habitats for young fish to occupy and small settlers (due to lower larval growth and/or shorter PLDs) to these habitats have a lower chance of survival than they do in rubble habitats. Settling reef fish are not all equal and the time and location of settlement influences the likelihood that individuals will survive to contribute to the population.