The researchers say their study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, is the first to identify the oceanic paths along which corals disperse globally.
Coral reefs, under increasing threat from human activity, natural disturbances and climate change, may respond to changing conditions by shifting to more favorable refuges, but their ability to do so will depend on the ocean currents, the researchers reported.
"Dispersal is an extremely important process for corals," Sally Wood at Britain's University of Bristol said. "As they are attached to the seafloor as adults, the only way they can escape harmful conditions or replenish damaged reefs is by releasing their young to the mercy of the ocean currents."
Tracking the movement of such tiny coral larvae in the vast oceans has been an impossible task.
"This is where computer simulation comes in," Wood said.
Wood used a computer model developed at the University of Miami to identify the billions of paths taken.
This larval migration model found that while the majority of simulated larvae settled close to home, others traveled as far as 5,600 miles, almost the entire width of the Pacific Ocean.
When considered over multiple generations, Wood said, this suggests corals are able to cross entire ocean basins, using islands and coastlines as "stepping stones" to shift their locations in response to climate change.