JCU Research Shines Light on Clownfish Relationships

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An international report has revealed startling details about clownfish larvae dispersal.

By Nick Palmisano

Marine researchers from James Cook University have revealed the long-distance migration patterns of the Omani Clownfish and the relationship between larvae dispersal and reef sustainability.

 Dr Hugo Harrison, from the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, has co-authored an international report on long-distance larvae dispersal, in partnership with Dr Stephen Simpson, from the University of Exeter in Southern England.

The coastline of Oman in the Middle East has only two reef systems, one in the north and one in the south, with 400km of open water separating them. The clownfish larvae swim the entire stretch, generally from north to south, taking advantage of ocean currents.

Dr Simpson and a team of colleagues travelled to southern Oman to gather genetic samples from the only two known populations of Amphiprion omanensis, and used DNA fingerprinting to profile almost 400 clownfish who had journeyed between the reefs.

Dr Harrison said that finding the clownfish was no easy task, and that collected data was very surprising.

Dispersal in coral reef fishes is at the larval stages and finding fish that had travelled between reefs is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“We knew that these reefs must be connected to one another, but we were very surprised and excited to find the fish that had travelled these distances.”

Dr Harrison said that in regard to ocean ecology and sustainability, dispersal is a crucial ecological process.

“Dispersal drives population dynamics, and defines the structure and persistence of populations across ecological and evolutionary timescales.

“Dispersal at these scales allows species to colonize new habitats as they become available or re-colonize disturbed and depleted habitats.”

Even the most remote reef systems form part of a greater network of marine diversity, ecology, and environment.

“Simply because a reef is isolated does not mean it is not connected. Dispersal ensures that the marine environment is a vast inter-connected web and gives species a chance to adapt to environmental stressors.”