Great Barrier Reef research finds the destructive starfish is eaten moreoften than thought.

Crown-of-thorns starfish are on the menu for many more fish species thanpreviously suspected, an investigation using fish poo and gut goo reveals.

The finding suggests that some fish, including popular eating and aquariumspecies, might have a role to play in keeping the destructive pest populationunder control.

The native starfish ( Acanthaster solaris ) is responsible for widespreaddamage to the Great Barrier Reef. Since 1962 its population has surged toplague proportions on three occasions, each time causing the loss of largeamounts of hard coral. A fourth outbreak is currently underway.

Increasing the amount of predation on starfish has long been touted as apotential solution to preventing outbreaks. However, aside from a mollusccalled the Giant Triton ( Charonia tritonis ), identifying what eats it hasbeen a challenging task.

Now, a team of scientists led by Dr Frederieke Kroon from the AustralianInstitute of Marine Science in Townsville, Australia, has applied a geneticmarker unique for crown-of-thorns, developed at AIMS, to detect the presenceof starfish DNA in fish poo and gut contents.

Over three years, Dr Kroon’s team used it on samples taken from 678 fish from101 species, comprising 21 families, gathered from reefs experiencing varyinglevels of starfish outbreak.

“Our results strongly indicate that direct fish predation on crown-of-thornsmay well be more common than is currently appreciated,” said Dr Kroon.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports , confirms thatat least 18 coral reef fish species – including Spangled Emperor ( Lethrinusnebulosus ), Redthroat Emperor ( Lethrinus miniatus ) and BlackspottedPuffer ( Arothron nigropunctatus ) – consume young or adult starfish on thereef.

Among the species were nine which had not been previously reported to feed oncrown-of-thorns. These include the Neon Damsel ( Pomacentrus coelistis ),Redspot Emperor ( Lethrinus lentjan ), and the Blackspot Snapper ( Lutjanusfulviflama ).

“Our findings might also solve a mystery – why reef areas that are closed tocommercial and recreational fishing tend to have fewer starfish than areaswhere fishing is allowed,” said Dr Kroon.

She and colleagues from AIMS worked with researchers from CSIRO Land and Waterand managers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to conduct thestudy.

“This innovative research sheds new light on the extent that coral reef fisheseat crown-of-thorns starfish,” said Mr Darren Cameron, co-author of the paper,and Director of the COTS Control Program at the Great Barrier Reef Marine ParkAuthority.

“A number of the fish species shown to feed on these starfish are caught bycommercial and recreational fisheries, highlighting the importance of marinepark zoning and effective fisheries management in controlling crown-of-thornsstarfish across the Great Barrier Reef.”

This research was supported by funding from the Ian Potter Foundation 50thAnniversary Commemorative Grants Scheme; the Lizard Island Reef ResearchFoundation; and the Australian Government’s National Environmental ScienceProgram’s Tropical Water Quality Hub.

Image: Dr Frederieke Kroon looking at a crown-of-thorns starfish on the GreatBarrier Reef.

Credit: D.Westcott/CSIRO

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