Seafarers or castaways: Ecological traits associated with rafting dispersal in tropical reef fishes

Osmar J. Luiz, Andrew P. Allen, D. Ross Robertson, Sergio R. Floeter, Joshua S. Madin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: Rafting with natural flotsam is an important mechanism of long-distance oceanic dispersal for many near-shore marine organisms. Identifying the species-level traits associated with this behaviour would aid in understanding and predicting a species' capacity for dispersal between isolated areas of benthic habitat. Location: The tropical and subtropical Atlantic. Methods: We assessed the relationships between species-level traits (habitat use, position in water column, diet, body size, schooling activity) and rafting behaviour among 985 species of reef fish using generalized linear mixed-effect modelling. To assess whether the relationships between rafting behaviour and species traits were mediated by raft type, our analysis included interactions between raft type and our predictor variables. Results: The following species-level traits are positively associated with rafting for reef fishes: (1) position in water column above reef substratum, which indicates a species' dependency on the substratum; (2) schooling behaviour, a trait linked to predation avoidance; (3) large adult size, which may be associated with enhanced survivorship and growth of rafting juveniles; and (4) broad habitat use, which may facilitate use of atypical habitats, including flotsam. Some correlations varied depending on the type of flotsam - broad habitat use is only positively correlated with the use of seaweed rafts, which may resemble patches of benthic macroalgal and seagrass beds that the reef fishes often use as ancillary habitat. In contrast, schooling behaviour is only positively correlated with rafting among logs and similar objects, perhaps because they represent poor refuges from predation. Main conclusions: A species' propensity to use rafts is associated with specific ecological traits, some of which are contingent on characteristics of the raft. Thus, our findings suggest that increasing amounts of man-made flotsam entering the ocean may differentially influence future rafting opportunities among tropical reef fishes, depending on their traits, which may have important implications for their biogeographical distributions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2323-2333
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


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