Rising CO2 concentrations affect settlement behaviour of larval damselfishes

Reef fish larvae actively select preferred benthic habitat, relying on olfactory, visual and acoustic cues to discriminate between microhabitats at settlement. Recent studies show exposure to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) impairs olfactory cue recognition in larval reef fishes. However, whether this alters the behaviour of settling fish or disrupts habitat selection is unknown. Here, the effect of elevated CO2 on larval behaviour and habitat selection at settlement was tested in three species of damselfishes (family Pomacentridae) that differ in their pattern of habitat use: Pomacentrus amboinensis (a habitat generalist), Pomacentrus chrysurus (a rubble specialist) and Pomacentrus moluccensis (a live coral specialist). Settlement-stage larvae were exposed to current-day CO2 levels or CO2 concentrations that could occur by 2100 (700 and 850 ppm) based on IPCC emission scenarios. First, pair-wise choice tests were performed using a two-channel flume chamber to test olfactory discrimination between hard coral, soft coral and coral rubble habitats. The habitat selected by settling fish was then compared among treatments using a multi-choice settlement experiment conducted overnight. Finally, settlement timing between treatments was compared across two lunar cycles for one of the species, P. chrysurus. Exposure to elevated CO2 disrupted the ability of larvae to discriminate between habitat odours in olfactory trials. However, this had no effect on the habitats selected at settlement when all sensory cues were available. The timing of settlement was dramatically altered by CO2 exposure, with control fish exhibiting peak settlement around the new moon, whereas fish exposed to 850 ppm CO2 displaying highest settlement rates around the full moon. These results suggest larvae can rely on other sensory information, such as visual cues, to compensate for impaired olfactory ability when selecting settlement habitat at small spatial scales. However, rising CO2 could cause larvae to settle at unfavourable times, with potential consequences for larval survival and population replenishment.

Devine B. M., Munday P. L., & Jones G. P., in press. Rising CO2 concentrations affect settlement behaviour of larval damselfishes. Coral Reefs doi:10.1007/s00338-011-0837-0. Article (subscription required).

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