Orientation behavior in fish larvae: A missing piece to Hjort's critical period hypothesis

Erica Staaterman, Claire B. Paris, Judith Helgers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


Larval reef fish possess considerable swimming and sensory abilities, which could enable navigation towards settlement habitat from the open ocean. Due to their small size and relatively low survival, tagging individual larvae is not a viable option, but numerical modeling studies have proven useful for understanding the role of orientation throughout ontogeny. Here we combined the theoretical framework of the biased correlated random walk model with a very high resolution three-dimensional coupled biophysical model to investigate the role of orientation behavior in fish larvae. Virtual larvae of the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus) were released daily during their peak spawning period from two locations in the Florida Keys Reef Tract, a region of complex eddy fields bounded by the strong Florida Current. The larvae began orientation behavior either before or during flexion, and only larvae that were within a given maximum detection distance from the reef were allowed to orient. They were subjected to ontogenetic vertical migration, increased their swimming speed during ontogeny, and settled on reefs within a flexible window of 24 to 32 days of pelagic duration. Early orientation, as well as a large maximum detection distance, increased settlement, implying that the early use of large-scale cues increases survival. Orientation behavior also increased the number of larvae that settled near their home reef, providing evidence that orientation is a mechanism driving self-recruitment. This study demonstrates that despite the low swimming abilities of the earliest larval stages, orientation during this "critical period" would have remarkable demographic consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)188-196
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of theoretical biology
StatePublished - Jul 7 2012


  • Critical period
  • Fish larvae
  • Modeling
  • Orientation
  • Self-recruitment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Applied Mathematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Orientation behavior in fish larvae: A missing piece to Hjort's critical period hypothesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this