MEPS 318:287-301 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps318287

Nursery function of tropical back-reef systems

Aaron J. Adams1, Craig P. Dahlgren2,*, G. Todd Kellison3,9, Matthew S. Kendall4, Craig A. Layman5, Janet A. Ley6, Ivan Nagelkerken7, Joseph E. Serafy8

1Mote Marine Laboratoy, Charlotte Harbor Field Station, PO Box 2197, Pineland, Florida 33945, USA
2Perry Institute for Marine Science, 100 N US Highway 1, Suite 202, Jupiter, Florida 33477, USA
3Biscayne National Park, 9700 SW 328th Street, Homestead, Florida 33033, USA
4NOAA Biogeography Team, 1305 East West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA
5Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8106, USA
6Australian Maritime College, PO Box 21, Beauty Point, Tasmania 7270, Australia
7Department of Animal Ecology and Ecophysiology, Institute for Water and Wetland Research, Radboud University Nijmegen, Toernooiveld 1, 6525 ED, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
8National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, 75 Virginia Beach Drive, Miami, Florida 33149, USA
9Present address: National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, 75 Virginia Beach Drive, Miami, Florida 33149, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Similar to nearshore systems in temperate latitudes, the nursery paradigm for tropical back-reef systems is that they provide a habitat for juveniles of species that subsequently make ontogenetic shifts to adult populations on coral reefs (we refer to this as the nursery function of back-reef systems). Nevertheless, we lack a full understanding of the importance of the nursery function of back-reef systems to the maintenance of coral reef fishes and invertebrate populations; the few studies that have examined the nursery function of multiple habitats indicate that the relationship between juvenile production in back-reef habitats and their subsequent contribution to adult populations on reefs remain poorly understood. In this synopsis we (1) synthesize current knowledge of life history, ecological and habitat influences on juvenile distribution patterns and nursery function within back-reef systems; (2) outline a research strategy for assessing the nursery function of various habitat types in back-reef systems; and (3) discuss management recommendations, particularly in regard to how improved knowledge of the nursery function of back-reef systems can be used in fisheries and ecosystem management, including habitat conservation and restoration decisions. The research strategy builds on research recommendations for assessing the nursery function of temperate habitats and includes 4 levels of research: (1) building conceptual models to guide research and management; (2) identifying juvenile habitat use patterns; (3) measuring connectivity of juvenile and adult populations between habitats; and (4) examining ecological processes that may influence patterns assessed in Level 2 and Level 3 research. Research and modeling output from Levels 1 to 4 will provide an improved ecological understanding of the degree and importance of interconnections between coral reef and adjacent back-reef systems, and will provide information to managers that will facilitate wise decisions pertaining to habitat conservation, habitat restoration, and ecosystem-based management, and the maintenance of sustainable fisheries.


KEY WORDS: Back-reef systems · Nursery · Nearshore habitats · Coral reef · Seagrass · Mangrove


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