Larval settlement in wave-dominated, nearshore environments is the most critical life stage for a vast array of marine invertebrates, yet it is poorly understood and virtually impossible to observe in situ. Using a custom-built flume tank that mimics the oscillatory fluid flow over a shallow coral reef, we isolated the effect of millimeter-scale benthic topography and showed that it increases the settlement of slow-swimming coral larvae by an order of magnitude relative to flat substrates. Particle tracking velocimetry of flow fields revealed that millimeter-scale ridges introduced regions of flow recirculation that redirected larvae toward the substrate surface and decreased the local fluid speed, effectively increasing the window of time for larvae to settle. Regions of recirculation were quantified using the Q-criterion method of vortex identification and correlated with the settlement locations of larvae for the first time. In agreement with experiments, computational fluid dynamics modeling and agent-based larval simulations also showed significantly higher settlement onto ridged substrates. Additionally, in contrast to previous reports on the effect of micro-scale substrate topography, we found that these topographies did not produce key hydrodynamic features linked to increased settlement. These findings highlight how physics-based substrate design can create new opportunities to increase larval recruitment for ecosystem restoration.
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