Juvenile crown-of-thorns starfish, young (left), old (right). [Credit: Monique Webb, Byrne et al.]
Crown-of-thorns starfish are native to the Great Barrier Reef and found in the Indo-Pacific region, but they are classified as a species of concern because the damage large populations cause to coral is more significant than any other species. They fall behind only cyclones and bleaching events in their impact on coral mortality.
New findings suggest the species’ resilience to warming waters could exacerbate the ravaging effect climate change has on coral reefs.
The research is published in the journal Global Change Biology, led by Professor Maria Byrne from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. She is also a member of the Marine Science Institute and Sydney Environment Institute.
Over the course of the experiment, juvenile crown-of-thorns displayed a surprisingly high heat tolerance, higher than that observed in their adult counterparts. This means that, even if the coral-eating adult stage declines in climate change-driven ocean warming scenarios, perhaps from a lack of their coral prey or from the heat, their herbivorous young can wait patiently for the opportune moment to grow into carnivores.