Early life stage of coral reef fish in the Gulf of Aqaba

Coral reef fish are typically permanent dwellers of the reef environment; however, their young, the larvae, set out into the open sea. In the pelagic environment the larvae drift with the rest of the plankton, and gradually acquire swimming and orientation abilities which enable them to recruit into the reef environment.

Since not much is known about the larval stage, it is often referred to as "the black box phase” of coral reef fish. The scarcity in knowledge is not only due to the difficulty in studying minute creatures in the vast open sea, but also because larval identification is a complex and challenging process. The reasons are diverse: There are significant morphological differences between the larval and the adult forms; Different taxonomic groups are highly similar at early stages; And finally, Red Sea larval identification sources do not exist in the literature. Larval taxonomic identification is accomplished by examining morphological characteristics such as: meristic features (vertebrae, spine and ray counts), general body shape and pigmentation patterns.

As part of my PhD research, I intend to characterize the spatial and temporal coral reef fish larval distribution throughout the water column in the Gulf of Aqaba. Larval distribution is important since larvae occupying different positions in the water column encounter different environmental conditions which affect their dispersal trajectories and hence the connectivity among populations.

Extensive stratified plankton sampling along the coasts of Eilat and Aqaba was carried out last year as part of my field work. I plan to refine my larval fish identification skills at the laboratory of Prof. Claire Paris at the RSMAS Institute, in Miami, Florida.