Coral-killing starfish turns out to be four species, not one

PARIS, September 30, 2008 (AFP) – The crown-of-thorns starfish, a notorious threat to coral in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, comprises four species, not one, biologists reported on Tuesday.

The spiny predator, known by its Latin name of Acanthaster planci, has been a worsening peril to reefs for at least three decades, latching onto coral polyps and digesting them.

A paper published in the British journal Biology Letters said that most research on A. planci has been carried out on in the Pacific, triggered by devastating outbreaks of the pest on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

But DNA analysis of specimens recovered elsewhere shows the creature comprises four distinct species, it says.

They are found in the Red Sea, the Northern Indian Ocean and the Southern Indian Ocean as well as in the Pacific.

The surprise finding could have important consequences for reef conservation, say the authors.

Different species could favour different habitats and have different reproductive and nutritional behaviours, and this in turn could dictate when and where starfish outbreaks occur. But further investigation is needed to see if this is the case. The paper is lead-authored by