Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 1539–1550 | Cite as

What Makes Nearshore Habitats Nurseries for Nekton? An Emerging View of the Nursery Role Hypothesis

  • Steven Y. LitvinEmail author
  • Michael P. Weinstein
  • Marcus Sheaves
  • Ivan Nagelkerken


Estuaries and other coastal habitats are considered essential for the survival of early life stages of commercial, recreational, and other ecologically important species. While early designations simply referred to habitats with higher densities of juveniles as nurseries, the definition was improved by arguing that contribution per unit area to the production of individuals that recruit to adult populations is greater, on average, in nursery habitats. However, this and related approaches typically consider critical habitats as individual, homogeneous entities that are static in nature and do not specifically incorporate important dynamics that determine nursery function. The latter include environmental variability, estuarine hydrodynamics, trophic coupling, ontogenetic habitat shifts, and spatially explicit usage of habitat patches and corridors within larger seascapes. Subsequent studies have identified important factors that regulate nursery value, and researchers working independently across the globe have not only supported the advances made in defining the processes underlying nursery function but, as set forth in this narrative, have advanced it while suggesting that much work still needs to be done to improve our understanding of the links between juvenile nekton survival and the estuarine-coastal seascape. We discuss the current nursery role hypothesis and the data supporting (or refuting) it along with the implications for management of estuarine habitats for the conservation or restoration of nursery function.


Nursery role hypothesis Estuary Seascape Recruitment Ontogenetic migration Connectivity 


Funding Information

The authors received funding from the following agencies that supported their work: USEPA, NSF, NOAA, USGS, Marsh Ecology Research Program (MERP), Sea Grant, and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and end-user partners, such as Queensland Environment and Heritage Protection and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that have helped align the work with management needs.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Monterey Bay Aquarium Research InstituteMoss LandingUSA
  2. 2.College of Sciences and MathematicsMontclair State UniversityMontclairUSA
  3. 3.Marine Biology and Aquaculture Unit, College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Biological Sciences and The Environmental InstituteThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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