Hydrothermal vents are ephemeral because of frequent volcanic and tectonic activities associated with crust formation. Although the larvae of hydrothermal vent fauna can rapidly colonize new vent sites separated by tens to hundreds of kilometres, the mechanisms by which these larvae disperse and recruit are not understood. Here we integrate physiological, developmental and hydrodynamic data to estimate the dispersal potential of larvae of the giant tubeworm Riftia pachyptila. At in situ temperatures and pressures (2 degrees C and 250 atm), we estimate that the metabolic lifespan for a larva of R. pachyptila averages 38 days. In the measured flow regime at a fast-spreading ridge axis (9 degrees 50' N; East Pacific Rise), this lifespan results in potential along-ridge dispersal distances that rarely exceed 100 km. This limited dispersal results not from the physiological performance of the embryos and larvae, but instead from transport limitations imposed by periodic reversals in along-ridge flows and sustained episodes of across-ridge flow. The lifespan presented for these larvae can now be used to predict dispersal under current regimes at other hydrothermal vent sites.