National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2016

El Niño and coral larval dispersal across the eastern Pacific marine barrier

Wood, S., I.B. Baums, C.B. Paris, A. Ridgwell, W.S. Kessler, and E.J. Hendy

Nat. Commun., 7, 12571, doi: 10.1038/ncomms12571, Available online (2016)

More than 5,000 km separates the frequently disturbed coral reefs of the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) from western sources of population replenishment. It has been hypothesized that El Niño events facilitate eastward dispersal across this East Pacific Barrier (EPB). Here we present a biophysical coral larval dispersal model driven by 14.5 years of high-resolution surface ocean current data including the extreme 1997–1998 El Niño. We find no eastward cross-EPB connections over this period, which implies that ETP coral populations decimated by the 1998 bleaching event can only have recovered from eastern Pacific sources, in congruence with genetic data. Instead, rare connections between eastern and central Pacific reefs are simulated in a westward direction. Significant complexity and variability in the surface flows transporting larvae mean that generalized upper-ocean circulation patterns are poor descriptors of inter-regional connectivity, complicating the assessment of how climate change will impact coral gene flow Pacific wide.

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