This is the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, which, as you can guess from its name, is a lovable creature and a true friend to all.
The Crown-of-Thorns starts its life like any other starfish – five arms and radial symmetry – but the older it gets, the more the arms split, and the more spikes sprout from its nasty Hellraiser skin. Eventually, it will turn into a huge barbed disk with a frill of arms, blindly feeling its way across the ocean floor, looking for food.
And for the Crown of Thorns Starfish, food means coral. Not just the animals that live there – the coral itself.
The starfish is a problem because it eats the very creatures that make up the reef, and is difficult for other animals to stop. Methodically, it moves across the reef, killing and consuming the coral, cracking the ecosystem apart from the bottom up.
What’s worse, in many parts of the world human-induced chemical runoff has caused plankton to bloom, creating the perfect conditions for an uncontrollable starfish “outbreak”. One such outbreak has destroyed 42% of the Great Barrier Reef in the last 15 years.
Notice how it’s pretty tough to tell them apart in the photo above – there’s just too many of them, too crammed together.
Like that, they move over the marine landscape, and leave only the coral skeletons behind. Made brittle without their owners, the coral skeletons usually break apart in the next storm, and the reef is destroyed. On the wreckage, algae will grow, and the ecosystem will change completely.
The phalanx can defend itself, too. Like regular, non-evil starfish, the Crown-of-Thorns has a body full of saponins – chemicals which act like a natural detergent.
Keeping one of these starfish in an enclosed pool will quickly have it foaming, like bubble bath, but whatever you do, don’t light a few candles and put some Barry White on. The Crown-of-Thorns got its name for a reason, and it is covered in sharp spikes, intended to punch deep into flesh and get the saponins into the wound. Regular bubble bath stings your eyes; Crown-of-Thorns bubble bath stings wounds, and usually means massive swelling, crippling agony, and a trip to the hospital.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the spines also have a nasty habit of breaking off deep inside a predator or an errant foot, resulting in some quality time spent with the nearest surgeon.
So, I guess we just sit back, keep our hands and arms away from the starfish and let it eat all the reefs ever, right?
The defence of the reefs has to come from two angles – eliminating the chemical runoff that’s causing the starfish outbreaks, and culling the existing population back down to their natural, non-apocalyptic numbers.
Three boat crews on the Great Barrier Reef are deployed every year to try to bring the starfish population down, with divers injecting each one with ox bile and moving on. It’s a race against time, trying to beat the starfish’s phenomenal reproductive speed, and the bile is expensive and difficult to store and use.
Recently, however, it was discovered that normal household vinegar does the same job with a 100% starfish kill rate. Much cheaper, available in any supermarket and easy to store, ocean tests are underway now to see whether it may hold the key to saving the reefs.
The other side of the rescue, however, is not going well. The industrial and agricultural runoff that creates the outbreaks has continued without rest – the conditions are perfect for another endless swarm.
All we need to do to stop the outbreaks forever is cut back on the pollution of the oceans.
That should be easy, right?