Environmental and Life-history Factors Influencing Juvenile Demography of a Temperate Reef Fish
Realistic population models and effective conservation strategies require a thorough understanding of the processes that drive variation in individual growth and survival, particularly within life stages that are subject to high mortality. For fragmented marine populations it is also important to consider how processes driving variation performance may vary through space and time. In this study I assess the interaction of two primary factors driving juvenile demography: benthic habitat composition and larval history traits, in a temperate reef fish, Forsterygion lapillum (the common triplefin). It is well understood that juveniles of many marine organisms are closely associated with structured nearshore habitats as they provide resources (refuge and food sources) that are critical for juvenile growth and/or survival. Nursery habitats are often assessed using measures of fitness of juveniles inhabiting them (e.g. rates of growth). However individual fitness measures may not only be indicative of conditions experienced in the benthic phase, but also an individual's prior history. Recent evidence suggests that variation in larval traits at settlement (e.g., size and age at settlement, larval growth rate) can impact on subsequent ecological performance (e.g., feeding ability and/or predator avoidance) and therefore influence subsequent fitness (i.e. rates of growth and/or probabilities of survival). I used otolith microstructure to assess separate and joint effects of habitat composition and larval traits on the growth of young F. lapillum. Both macroalgal composition of habitat patches and larval traits affected juvenile growth rates, and results suggested that habitat composition may have the potential to mediate fitness-related advantages that may accrue to certain individuals as a result of paternal effects and/or larval dispersal history. Quantifying spatio-temporal variability in the post-settlement fitness of Individuals with that differ in larval traits is essential for effective spatial management of marine populations. I further explore the joint effects of macroalgal composition and larval traits, within the context of additional spatial and temporal environmental variation. Results provide direct evidence that habitat can mediate the strength of carryover effects, but that the impact of habitat was variable between local populations and settlement events through time. In chapter 4 of my thesis, I focus on how small-scale variation in macroalgal composition within a nursery habitat (while controlling for individual variation) can affect the strength of density dependent growth and survival rates of F. lapillum. Density-dependent survival is evident during the first 30 days after settlement, and the strength of density dependence varied as a function of macroalgal composition. Resulting variation in estimates of nursery value (i.e., the number of late-stage juveniles produced per area unit of habitat) highlight the importance of incorporating local scale variation in juvenile demography into assessments of nursery habitat. Lastly, I assess a potential strategy of fishes to persist in a wide range of benthic environments. The ability to adjust traits (i.e., phenotypic plasticity) may allow organisms that encounter a range of unpredictable environmental conditions to maximise fitness within a single generation. In chapter 5 I explore patterns of variation in morphology of juvenile F. lapillum from two different subpopulations and from different macroalgal habitats. I evaluate possible evidence for constraints on morphological variation arising from variation in growth rate prior to and following settlement. Results suggest that for organisms with complex life cycles, variation in growth rates experienced during dispersal may constrain plasticity in later stages.