MEPS 493:243-257 (2013)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps10542

Orientation from open water to settlement habitats by coral reef fish: behavioral flexibility in the use of multiple reliable cues

M. M. Igulu1,2, I. Nagelkerken1,3,*, M. van der Beek1, M. Schippers1, R. van Eck1, Y. D. Mgaya4

1Radboud University Nijmegen, Institute for Water and Wetland Research, Department of Animal Ecology and Ecophysiology, PO Box 9010, 6500 GL Nijmegen, The Netherlands
2Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute, PO Box 9750, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
3Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, DX 650 418, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia
4College of Natural and Applied Sciences, Department of Aquatic Science and Fisheries, University of Dar es Salaam, PO Box 60091, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
*‑Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Most coastal marine organisms have a dispersive oceanic larval stage, during which they must be able to distinguish and respond to relevant environmental cues when settling into their first benthic habitat. Chemical stimuli emanating from settlement habitats and being dispersed by water plumes could enable long-distance navigation by larval reef fish, but we know little about the cues responsible and their interactive effects. In the present study, we tested this by conducting several ex situ choice experiments in which the response of the coral reef fish Lutjanus fulviflamma towards different chemical cues from coastal habitats was tested close to their settlement stage. Fish preferred seagrass habitat water over that from coral reef and mangrove habitats. Furthermore, fish were attracted to chemical cues from their own species (conspecifics) and other fish species, as well as vegetation of 4 different seagrass species, when offered in isolation (i.e. soaked in neutral water), but a strong response remained only towards cues from conspecifics and seagrass leaves when these cues were mixed with seagrass habitat water that naturally contains other cues. Hierarchical effects were observed as fish preferred chemical cues from seagrass leaves over those from conspecifics when both were offered at the same time. The importance of visual habitat cues only overruled that of chemical cues when it concerned preferred cues (i.e. seagrass as opposed to mangrove cues). Our findings indicate that pelagic fish and settlers possess the ability to use multiple reliable chemical cues to locate suitable early life stage habitats, although the importance of these cues is context-dependent. Nevertheless, this flexibility in choice behavior is probably an adaptive strategy to enhance fitness by increasing successful orientation towards preferred settlement habitats.


KEY WORDS: Sensory modalities · Mangrove · Seagrass · Coral reef · Chemical cues · Coral reef fish · Lutjanus fulviflamma


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Cite this article as: Igulu MM, Nagelkerken I, van der Beek M, Schippers M, van Eck R, Mgaya YD (2013) Orientation from open water to settlement habitats by coral reef fish: behavioral flexibility in the use of multiple reliable cues. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 493:243-257. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps10542

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