Larval settlement behaviour in six gregarious ascidians in relation to adult distribution

23 May 2011

Settlement influences the distribution and abundance of many marine organisms, although the relative roles of abiotic and biotic factors influencing settlement are poorly understood. Species that aggregate often owe this characteristic to larval behaviour, and we investigated whether this predisposes ascidians to becoming invasive, by increasing their capacity to maintain their populations. We explored the interactive effects of larval phototaxis and geotaxis and conspecific adult extracts on settlement rates of a representative suite of 6 species of ascidians that form aggregations in the field, including 4 aliens with global distributions, and how they relate to adult habitat characteristics. In the laboratory, the larvae were (1) held in light or dark, (2) offered the choice of settling in the light or dark, or (3) held in the presence or absence of adult extract. When confined in either light or dark conditions, all species settled equally in dark and light. Four showed strong geotaxis, 3 settling preferentially on the bottom of experimental chambers, and one on the top. Offered a choice between dark and light, 2 species settled preferentially in the dark with no geotactic preferences and another 2 showed an interaction between light and geotaxis. For 4 of the species, the responses of settlers accorded with, and may contribute to, adult orientation patterns in the field. Adult extracts inhibited settlement of 3 species and failed to influence settlement of the other 3, arguing against conspecific attraction being a cause of aggregation and an explanation of the propensity of ascidians to become invasive.