Research targets thorn on Great Barrier Reef

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Research targets thorn on Great Barrier Reef


Published on 7 November 2013

The University of the Sunshine Coast will play a key role in developing a novel and innovative control technology to manage the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, the crown-of-thorns starfish.

The Australian Government Reef Rescue program recently provided funding to the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) to investigate the potential for a pest control technology specifically targeted at crown-of-thorns starfish.

The funding has led to a research consortium between AIMS, USC and the Marine Genomics laboratory at the University of Queensland.

USC Senior Lecturer Dr Scott Cummins, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in molecular and cellular biology, and USC Research Fellow Dr Tianfang Wang said the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure.

“Population explosions of crown-of-thorns starfish are one of the major causes of coral demise,” Dr Cummins said. “This is a native pest damaging a World Heritage asset, and requiring novel control measures.”

He said feeding aggregations of crown-of-thorns starfish could cause significant loss of coral cover on infested reefs, with individual adults consuming between six to 10 square metres of live coral per year.

“The oceans are a ‘smelly’ world and odours in water can trigger critical behaviours,” Dr Cummins said. “The ability to detect and respond to chemical signals is essential in all aspects of the lives of aquatic animals.”

He said pheromone communication in crown-of-thorns starfish could induce aggregations.

“Pheromone-based technologies to manage pests are used worldwide for many species of insects. Our goal is to demonstrate that a similar approach may be used in the marine environment to enhance the effectiveness of current control methods.”

USC is seeking a PhD student to join the project on campus at Sippy Downs.

Dr Mike Hall, of AIMS, said breakthrough discoveries that could manipulate animal behaviours could lead to the development of frontier technologies as a method of pest control of crown-of-thorns starfish for an environmentally-sustainable Great Barrier Reef.

AIMS is a world leader in the biology of crown-of-thorns starfish and its new SeaSim marine aquarium complex will be critical towards understanding starfish behaviour and identifying their vulnerabilities.

Julie Schomberg

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