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Starfish Destroying Great Barrier Reef
Crown-of-thorns Starfish Eating through famous coral reef (CCSS Level: Grade 9, Words: 570)
Jan 22, 2018 Science & Technology

A breed of giant spiky starfish known as the crown-of-thorns starfish, have been eating away at the Great Barrier Reef since 1970. On healthy coral reefs, these coral-eating starfish feed on faster growing corals, and allow slower growing coral species to form colonies, which helps to increase coral diversity. But recent outbreaks of these starfish are one of the most significant threats to the Great Barrier Reef, as the starfish will only feed on coral flesh. "This starfish is not like a typical five-arm starfish," said Mike Hall at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. "They have more than a dozen arms and can be as large as a dinner plate, and they're always hungry." These starfish have protective spines all over their body that eject a neurotoxin, and consume the coral reefs by climbing and covering the reefs with their stomach to excrete a digestive juice to dissolve the coral flesh and suck it up. Attempts have been made to preserve the reef, such as trying to breed coral in places that are less prone to bleaching or replacing dead coral. Mike Hall stated that these methods will not be effective without controlling the starfish better. "If nothing's done about the crown-of thorns starfish, you're just producing more food for the starfish."

Since 2012, Australia has killed more than 600,000 of the starfish across the Reef. However, there are currently more than five million crown-of-thorns starfish on the reefs between Cooktown and Cairns. Recently, a team of 25 volunteer divers hunted for these starfish and injected them with bile salts. The salts then penetrated holes in the creature's cell walls and killed them within a day. However, this method is not effective in the long term as each starfish has to be injected individually and it is a costly and slow job. Instead, researchers from Australia and Japan have decoded the starfish's pheromones, and have found a cheaper and more effective solution. "Now we've found the genes they use to communicate; we can begin fabricating environmentally safe baits that trick them into gathering in one place," said report author Professor Bernard Degnan. "We had starfish at the base of a giant Y-shaped tank and if you let plain seawater run in, it basically just sits there," said Degnan. "However, if you have one arm with natural seawater and another that had travelled across aggregating starfish in a different tank, it would immediately sense the chemical and move towards the arm from where the signal came. We did this repeatedly and the data is significant statistically." The researchers are hoping that a similar approach can also be applied to other marine pests.

The Federal Government has revealed a $60 million plan to protect the Reef. Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Jobs and Innovation, said that $10 million will be spent on controlling the population of the crown-of-thorns starfish. Most of the funding will be spent over the next 18 months on preventing polluted water from entering the reef. $6 million will go towards the AIMS or the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and the CSIRIO to "develop new ways for the reef to adapt and recover". "This is all about investing in the future of the reef itself… This is about looking at how technology can assist us in terms of new ways to help the reef adapt and recover."

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