A central question of marine ecology is, how far do larvae disperse? Coupled biophysical models predict that the probability of successful dispersal declines as a function of distance between populations. Estimates of genetic isolation-by-distance and self-recruitment provide indirect support for this prediction. Here, we conduct the first direct test of this prediction, using data from the well-studied system of clown anemonefish (Amphiprion percula) at Kimbe Island, in Papua New Guinea. Amphiprion percula live in small breeding groups that inhabit sea anemones. These groups can be thought of as populations within a metapopulation. We use the x- and y-coordinates of each anemone to determine the expected distribution of dispersal distances (the distribution of distances between each and every population in the metapopulation). We use parentage analyses to trace recruits back to parents and determine the observed distribution of dispersal distances. Then, we employ a logistic model to (i) compare the observed and expected dispersal distance distributions and (ii) determine the relationship between the probability of successful dispersal and the distance between populations. The observed and expected dispersal distance distributions are significantly different (p < 0.0001). Remarkably, the probability of successful dispersal between populations decreases fivefold over 1 km. This study provides a framework for quantitative investigations of larval dispersal that can be applied to other species. Further, the approach facilitates testing biological and physical hypotheses for the factors influencing larval dispersal in unison, which will advance our understanding of marine population connectivity.

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