A study, co-authored by James Cook University (JCU) researchers, shows the larvae cross large tracts of ocean to find new coral to settle on, making them better able to cope with environmental change.
“Knowing how far larvae disperse helps us understand how fish populations can adapt,” said Hugo Harrison from JCU’s centre of excellence for coral reef studies. “The further they can swim, the better they can cope.”
He said the results of the study, released in September, offer insight into the long distances travelled by baby clownfish, which feature in the animated film Finding Nemo.
“In the past we haven’t known where they go, but now we’ve been given a rare glimpse into how far they can swim, crossing large tracts of ocean to find new homes,” Harrison said.
He said the larvae moved about but fully grown clownfish spent their entire adult lives under the protection of one anemone.
As part of the international study, researchers collected 400 tissue samples from the only two known populations of Omani clownfish found on two reefs off southern Oman.
By analysing DNA fingerprinting – which reveals which of the two reefs the fish originated from – they found larvae were regularly travelling the 400km distance between the reefs.
Study co-author Stephen Simpson from the University of Exeter in England said it was the longest distance scientists had been able to track the dispersal of any coral reef fish.
“The findings change our understanding of marine populations,” he said. “They’re not small and separate as we often assume, rather this research shows they’re often vast and interconnected.”
The study was published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.