Settlement is a key life history transition for coral reef fishes, and how long a fish spends close to a reef prior to settlement is poorly understood. We used laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) and otolith microstructure analysis (daily increments and settlement marks) to determine the length of time larval fish spend near a reef prior to settlement. The otoliths of Pomacentrus amboinensis collected from four neighbouring reefs in the southern Great Barrier Reef showed clear and consistent differences in their elemental signatures prior to and following settlement. Elevated Ba:Ca near settlement and post-settlement was found in fish from all four reefs. However, there was individual variation in elemental profiles, with an increased otolith Ba-to-Ca ratio (near-reef signature) at settlement in 33 % of fish, and up to 8 d prior to settlement in others. Increment widths, often used as a proxy for growth, decreased approaching the settlement mark for all fish, providing further evidence for a “search phase” in larvae. We demonstrated experimentally that otoliths of fish kept in reefal or inter-reefal waters had different elemental chemistry. There were differences in the elemental composition of water samples within the study area, but no consistent trends with distance from reefs. There was poor discrimination of multi-element signatures among fish from different reefs during their pre-settlement phases. However, discrimination improved in the settlement and post-settlement phases of otoliths, indicating that reef waters and perhaps stage of ontogeny affected otolith chemistry. This study demonstrated clear near-reef elemental signatures in fish around settlement. We suggest these differences are due to a combination of water chemistry and physiological influences (e.g., growth). Combining LA-ICP-MS with otolith microstructure analysis can provide high-resolution information on the early life history of reef fishes. Further, a near-reef “search phase” prior to settlement may be common in reef fishes.
- Near-reef signature
- Otolith microchemistry