'Love potion' — discovery could significantly reduce impact of thorny menace

The power of attraction is an unlikely ally in saving the Great Barrier Reef from the destructive scourge of its fiercest enemy, the crown-of-thorns starfish, and could play a major role in helping to save corals reefs and other marine environments globally.

Husband-and-wife UQ researchers Professor Bernard Degnan and Associate Professor Sandie Degnan of UQ’s Faculty of Science found that the coral-eating starfish gather en masse when mating due to pheromones – a scent the researchers have decoded – so the prickly pests can be lured together for capture.

It’s a possible solution and an alternative to the current expensive and largely ineffective methods such as diver collection, injections or robotics, Professor Degnan said.

“Now that 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.”

However, without new funding it could take another five years to develop and deploy the technology.

“The world needs a big win when it comes to stopping marine destruction by invasive species and we want to go to the next stage deploying pheromone baits on a massive scale,” Associate Professor Degnan said.

At stake are coral reefs and marine environments — not only along the Queensland coast but around the world.

“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,” Professor Degnan said.

Associate Professor Degnan said the research was a lifeline when so much was at stake.

“The loss of this natural wonder would be devastating — and not just in economic terms," she said.

"I worry our children and grandchildren won't ever get to experience or work with the reef if we don't act now."

Help our researchers tackle global issues.