Sex sells. Even if you are a starfish, apparently.
Australian scientists at the University of Queensland have discovered a way to lure pesky reef killing starfish away from the Great Barrie Reef so they can be relocated elsewhere.
The culprit, the “Crown-of-thorns” starfish gets it name from the biblical crown of thorns which they somewhat resemble due to the venomous spines on their topside. They gather in large masses on the Great Barrier Reef, attracted by pheromones that the females put off.
When the starfish gather they then mate to their hearts content all while feasting on the endangered Great Barrier Reef. The female crown-of-thorns starfish can produce upwards of 120-million coral hungry offspring in a single mating season.
“For an already struggling Great Barrier Reef, and indeed any reefs across the Indo-Pacific region, these starfish pose an enormous threat due to the ability of a single female to produce up to 120 million offspring in one spawning season,” said Australian Professor Bernard Degnan to Canada Journal.
The pair believe they can use these pheromones which usually attract the starfish to the reef, to get the starfish away from the reef and into capture.
Female crown-of-thorn starfish pheromones have been studied by Degan and his wife, Associate Professor Sandie Degan, alongside colleagues from the university, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Okinawa Institute of research and Technology, and the University of Sunshine Coast . Degan, a graduate in Marine Biology and Molecular Biology, began studying at the University of Queensland 30 years ago after moving from New York and becoming one of the university’s first international exchange students.
Degan says it was because of the Great Barrier Reef that he met his wife and so their is some poetic justice that together they are helping to save it.
“They feast on the coral and leave it bleached white and vulnerable to destruction in heavy storms. Millions of dollars have been spent over many years on a variety of ways to capture crown-of-thorns starfish, whether it be via diver collection, injections or robotics,” he says.
“Now we’ve found the genes the starfish use to communicate, we can begin fabricating environmentally safe baits that trick them into gathering in one place, making it easier to remove reproductively-primed animals,” Professor Degan continued.
It is possible that this research may also be used to help stimulate the economy for fisherman, possibly gaining an extra income by removing the starfish from the reefs using the pheromone laced baits or whatever else they develop to attract them. It will also help to stimulate the tourism industry by keeping the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world alive and healthy.
This advance in pheromone research will not be strictly limited to helping to get rid of the starfish, researchers are also looking to use it to help get rid of other sea pests, such as sea snails.