Fish poop exposes what eats the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish

Adorned
with spikes and toxins, crown-of-thorns starfish aren’t an easy meal. In fact, it’s
long been thought that few animals could eat them. But an analysis of fish poop
and stomach contents from dozens of Great Barrier Reef species reveals a surprising number of
fish able to gulp down these prickly prey
, researchers report May 18 in Scientific Reports.

That’s
good news for coral reefs. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster cf. solaris) have an appetite
for living coral polyps. As they crawl over the reef, the starfish liquefy polyps
with digestive enzymes, sponging up the nutrients and leaving behind a coral
skeleton. Since 1962, periodic starfish population booms on the Great Barrier
Reef have caused widespread coral death. By identifying which fish species can
stomach a thorny diet, the new study reveals a possible way to suppress
crown-of-thorns outbreaks. 

Until
now, the crown-of-thorns’ list of known natural predators was very short. Giant
tritons (Charonia tritonis) — huge sea snails — were documented starfish
slayers, injecting crown-of-thorns with venomous saliva and sanding down their
spiny exterior with a rasping tongue. And while dozens of reef fish had been
observed eating crown-of-thorns, most of these starfish were injured or dead.

Yet
occasional starfish population booms suggest something is normally eating live,
healthy crown-of-thorns and keeping their numbers in check. So to find the
mystery predators, Frederieke Kroon, a biologist at the Australian Institute of
Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, looked to the guts and feces of reef fish
for answers. 

“A colleague of mine at AIMS had developed the genetic marker for this crown-of-thorns species,” Kroons says, “which made me think to apply it to [fish’s] poo to identify crown-of-thorns DNA and thus potential crown-of-thorns predators.”

Over
three expeditions in 2018 and 2019, Kroon and her team used nets to collect
reef fish from Great Barrier Reef locations with varying degrees of ongoing
crown-of-thorns outbreak. After rinsing the fish off and isolating them overnight
(to prevent cross-contamination with starfish DNA in the seawater), the
researchers collected the feces left behind in the fishes’ holding containers. The
team also dissected gut contents from other fish collected by spearfishing. In
all, the team tested nearly 700 individual fish from 101 different species.

fish poop samples
Finding crown-of-thorns starfish spines some fish poop samples (one shown) revealed to researchers that a surprising number of fish species can eat the prickly invertebrates, despite their noxious armaments.Frederieke Kroon

Genetic
analysis of the poop and gut contents revealed crown-of-thorns DNA in 30 of the
fish, representing at least 18 different fish species. Nine of these — like painted
sweetlips (Diagramma pictum labiosum) and purple rockcod (Epinephelus
cyanopodus
) — had never before been identified as crown-of-thorns predators,
the team reports.

“Just
the fact that we found DNA of crown-of-thorns in fish poo to begin with was
surprising to me! I thought we were looking for a needle in a haystack,” says
Kroon. The findings suggest a greater diversity of fish may be eating the
starfish than previously thought. 

Kristen Dahl,
a marine ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says she’s
surprised even more fish didn’t turn up as starfish predators, given the breadth
of species Kroon’s team sampled. Some fish may be eating only the
crown-of-thorns’ tiny, squishy larvae. Compared with tough chunks of tissue
torn from adult starfish, very little genetic material from these
easier-to-digest tidbits would probably make it through a fish’s gut. 

“Perhaps
if more of these reef fish are feeding on early life stages, the DNA
degradation would be quicker or more complete,” says Dahl, “leading to reduced
ability to detect predation” in poop samples.

A blackspotted puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus) feeds on a crown-of-thorns starfish in the laboratory, nipping at it with its strong beak. This species was previously known to eat crown-of-thorns. But a new study looking for starfish DNA in fish poop and guts revealed at least nine previously unknown species that are also crown-of-thorns predators.

Delving
into the diets of reef fishes can help scientists better understand how species
interact and how nutrients flow through coral reef food webs,
says Jordan Casey, a marine biologist at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Perpignan, France. “This is an
especially important puzzle to solve nowadays, under the growing impacts of
climate change,” she adds, which threatens reefs worldwide.

Understanding
ecological relationships has unveiled other useful allies in the effort to
preserve reefs, like algae that protect
corals from hungry starfish
(SN: 8/28/15). Likewise, figuring out who’s
eating whom may be key to dampening future crown-of-thorns outbreaks. Current methods
to control outbreaks involve killing individual starfish, says Kroon. Her
team’s findings could inspire new approaches, such as providing refuges and
fishing protections for species that can control these spiny reef-eaters. 

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