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Contemporary connectivity is sustained by wind- and current-driven seed dispersal among seagrass meadows.

ABSTRACT

Seagrasses are clonal marine plants that form important biotic habitats in many tropical and temperate coastal ecosystems. While there is a reasonable understanding of the dynamics of asexual (vegetative) growth in seagrasses, sexual reproduction and the dispersal pathways of the seeds remain poorly studied. Here we address the potential for a predominantly clonal seagrass, P. australis, to disperse over long distances by movement of floating fruit via wind and surface currents within the coastal waters of Perth, Western Australia. We first simulated the dominant atmospheric and ocean forcing conditions that are known to disperse these seagrass seeds using a three-dimensional numerical ocean circulation model. Field observations obtained at 8 sites across the study area were used to validate the model performance over ~2 months in summer when buoyant P. australis fruit are released into the water column. P. australis fruit dispersal trajectories were then quantified throughout the region by incorporating key physical properties of the fruit within the transport model. The time taken for the floating fruit to release their seed (dehiscence) was incorporated into the model based on laboratory measurements, and was used to predict the settlement probability distributions across the model domain.The results revealed that high rates of local and regional demographic connectivity among P. australis meadows are achieved via contemporary seed dispersal. Dispersal of seeds via floating fruit has the potential to regularly connect meadows at distances of 10s of kilometres (50% of seeds produced) and infrequently for meadows at distances 100 s km (3% of seeds produced).The spatial patterns of seed dispersal were heavily influenced by atmospheric and oceanographic conditions, which generally drove a northward pattern of connectivity on a regional scale, but with geographical barriers influencing finer-scale connectivity pathways at some locations. Such levels of seed dispersal infer greater levels of ecological and genetic connectivity and suggest that seagrasses are not just strongly clonal.