The behavior of reef fish larvae, equipped with a complex toolbox of sensory apparatus, has become a central issue in understanding their transport in the ocean. In this study pelagic reef fish larvae were monitored using an unmanned open-ocean tracking device, the drifting in-situ chamber (DISC), deployed sequentially in oceanic waters and in reef-born odor plumes propagating offshore with the ebb flow. A total of 83 larvae of two taxonomic groups of the families Pomacentridae and Apogonidae were observed in the two water masses around One Tree Island, southern Great Barrier Reef. The study provides the first in-situ evidence that pelagic reef fish larvae discriminate reef odor and respond by changing their swimming speed and direction. It concludes that reef fish larvae smell the presence of coral reefs from several kilometers offshore and this odor is a primary component of their navigational system and activates other directional sensory cues. The two families expressed differences in their response that could be adapted to maintain a position close to the reef. In particular, damselfish larvae embedded in the odor plume detected the location of the reef crest and swam westward and parallel to shore on both sides of the island. This study underlines the critical importance of in situ Lagrangian observations to provide unique information on larval fish behavioral decisions. From an ecological perspective the central role of olfactory signals in marine population connectivity raises concerns about the effects of pollution and acidification of oceans, which can alter chemical cues and olfactory responses.
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