Deadly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish Are Eating Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images
Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef is being attacked by some of its own inhabitants. A swarm of crown-of-thorns starfish has been eating the reef, which is already under threat due to due to higher ocean temperatures.

The moniker for these sea creatures sounds like something straight out of a Game of Thrones storyline, but the species can cause very real damage. They’ve been known to reproduce at high numbers that can “grow out of control” fast, according to The New York Times. Crown-of-thorns starfish are covered in poisonous spines (hence the name) and eat coral polyps, so the Great Barrier Reef is a natural food source. However, due to a population outbreak, this species is causing undue stress on the reef.

For 27 years, scientists saw the reef decline in 50 percent of its coral cover due to starfish. The reef itself houses numerous species, including turtles and sharks, and is made of both fast- and slow-growing coral. With a normal-sized crown-of-thorns population, the creature consumes the faster growing coral while slower growing coral continues to grow. But with a heightened outbreak, the starfish are eating the reef faster than it can reproduce new coral.

Scientists and researchers are leaping into action to treat the problem, buoyed by a $14 million pledge of support from the Australian government. It’s funding a team of divers who travel to the Great Barrier Reef 250 days a year to inject the offending starfish with a white vinegar solution, effectively culling them. This solution does not fatally affect other animals.

According to Hugh Sweatman, a scientist from the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, coral reefs are continuously embarking on cycles of death, regrowth, and renewal. It is natural for the reef to undergo periods of growth and change, but divers are taking a step further to reduce the population with the solution so Great Barrier Reef has enough time to recuperate and regrow.

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