The Eastern Tropical Pacific coral population connectivity and the role of the Eastern Pacific Barrier
Long-distance dispersal is believed to strongly influence coral reef population dynamics across the Tropical Pacific. However, the spatial scale and strength at which populations are potentially connected by dispersal remains uncertain. To determine the patterns in connectivity between the Eastern (ETP) and Central Tropical Pacific (CTP) ecoregions, we used a biophysical model incorporating ocean currents and larval biology to quantify the seascape-wide dispersal potential among all population. We quantified the likelihood and determined the oceanographic conditions that enable the dispersal of coral larvae across the Eastern Pacific Barrier (EP-Barrier) and identified the main connectivity pathways and their conservation value for dominant reef-building corals. Overall, we found that coral assemblages within the CTP and ETP are weakly connected through dispersal. Although the EP-Barrier isolates the ETP from the CTP ecoregion, we found evidence that the EP-Barrier may be breached, in both directions, by rare dispersal events. These rare events could explain the evolutionary genetic similarity among populations of pocilloporids in the ecoregions. Moreover, the ETP may function as a stronger source rather than a destination, providing potential recruits to CTP populations. We also show evidence for a connectivity loop in the ETP, which may positively influence long-term population persistence in the region. Coral conservation and management communities should consider eight-key stepping stone ecoregions when developing strategies to preserve the long-distance connectivity potential across the ETP and CTP.