Larval settlement in wave-dominated, nearshore environments is the most critical life stage for a vast array of marine invertebrates, yet it is poorly understood and virtually impossible to observe in situ. Using a custom-built flume tank that mimics the oscillatory fluid flow over a shallow coral reef, we show that millimeter-scale benthic topography increases the settlement of slow-swimming coral larvae by an order of magnitude relative to flat substrates. Particle tracking velocimetry of flow fields revealed that millimeter-scale ridges introduced regions of flow recirculation that redirected larvae toward the substrate surface and decreased the local fluid speed, effectively increasing the window of time for larvae to settle. In agreement with experiments, computational fluid dynamics modeling and agent-based larval simulations also showed significantly higher settlement on ridged substrates. These findings highlight how physics-based substrate design can create new opportunities to increase larval recruitment for ecosystem restoration.
Mark A. Levenstein
ABSTRACT: The widespread loss of stony reef-building coral populations has been compounded by the low settlement and survival of coral juveniles. To rebuild coral communities, restoration practitioners have developed workflows to settle vulnerable coral larvae in the laboratory and outplant settled juveniles back to natural and artificial reefs. These workflows often make use of natural biochemical settlement cues, which are presented to swimming larvae to induce settlement. This paper establishes the potential for inorganic cues to complement these known biochemical effects. Settlement substrates were fabricated from calcium carbonate, a material present naturally on reefs, and modified with additives including sands, glasses, and alkaline earth carbonates. Experiments with larvae of two Caribbean coral species revealed additive-specific settlement preferences that were independent of bulk surface properties such as mean roughness and wettability. Instead, analyses of the substrates suggest that settling coral larvae can detect localized topographical features more than an order of magnitude smaller than their body width and can sense and positively respond to soluble inorganic minerals such as silica (SiO2) and strontianite (SrCO3). These findings open a new area of research in coral reef restoration, in which composite substrates can be designed with a combination of natural organic and inorganic additives to increase larval settlement and perhaps also improve post-settlement growth, mineralization, and defense.