Marine Biology

, 166:99 | Cite as

Crown-of-thorns starfish impede the recovery potential of coral reefs following bleaching

  • M. D. E. Haywood
  • D. P. Thomson
  • R. C. BabcockEmail author
  • R. D. Pillans
  • J. K. Keesing
  • M. Miller
  • W. A. Rochester
  • A. Donovan
  • R. D. Evans
  • G. Shedrawi
  • S. N. Field
Original Paper


High densities of the corallivorous crown-of-thorns starfish (CoTS; Acanthaster sp.) have occurred throughout the Indo-Pacific often resulting in widespread coral loss. Whilst CoTS have previously been recorded at Barrow and the Montebello Islands, in the Pilbara offshore bioregion of northwestern Australia, their densities were relatively low. Outbreak densities of CoTS have been described as the level at which the rate of coral consumption by the starfish is equal to or greater than rate at which the coral grows. In 2014, we recorded densities as high as 320 ± 58 CoTS ha−1 in the region which is well above recognised outbreak densities. Whilst there is little terrestrial runoff and agriculture in the Pilbara region, both temperature and chlorophyll-α levels appear to be sufficient to allow a high degree of CoTS larval success in most years. The region was subjected to anomalously high water temperatures during the summers of 2010–2011 and particularly 2012–2013 which resulted in the mortality of almost 70% of live coral. We hypothesise that the high densities of CoTS observed are a result of CoTS responding to a reduced food supply and aggregating around the remaining live coral resulting in outbreak densities rather than a significant increase in the number of CoTS in the area. The small amount of remaining live coral is concentrated in a few areas and this, combined with high densities of CoTS in these areas, suggest that CoTS represent a significant threat to the recovery of the coral communities of the region.



This project was funded by the Gorgon Barrow Island Net Conservation Benefits Fund administered by the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. Many thanks to Melanie Trapon for analysing the benthic photographs, Christopher Doropoulos and Katja Antipas who helped with the manta towing and to the crew of the Flying Fish V and the Keshi Mer who ensured we were safe and well fed. Our thanks and appreciation to three anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful comments improved the manuscript substantially. The DBCA coral and CoTS data were collected as part of the Dredging Audit and Surveillance Program by the Gorgon Joint Venture as part of the environmental offsets. The Gorgon project is a joint venture of the Australian subsidiaries of Chevron, Exxonmobil, Shell, Osaka Gas, Tokyo Gas and Chubu Electric Power.

Author contributions

MDEH and RCB conceived the project; MDEH led the writing with assistance from RCB, DPT, RDP, JKK, MM, WAR, AD, RE, GS and SF. MDEK, RCB, RP, DPT, RE, GS and SF collected the data. MDEH, RE, GS and SF analysed the data.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal participant

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Permits for the collection and handling of animals were obtained from the Western Australian Department of Fisheries (Exemption No. 2854) and the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. D. E. Haywood
    • 1
  • D. P. Thomson
    • 2
  • R. C. Babcock
    • 1
    Email author
  • R. D. Pillans
    • 1
  • J. K. Keesing
    • 2
  • M. Miller
    • 1
  • W. A. Rochester
    • 1
  • A. Donovan
    • 1
  • R. D. Evans
    • 3
    • 4
  • G. Shedrawi
    • 5
  • S. N. Field
    • 4
    • 6
  1. 1.CSIRO Oceans and AtmosphereSt LuciaAustralia
  2. 2.CSIRO Oceans and AtmosphereCrawleyAustralia
  3. 3.Marine Science Program, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and AttractionsKensingtonAustralia
  4. 4.The Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Indian Ocean Marine Research CentreCrawleyAustralia
  5. 5.Pacific Community HeadquartersSouth Pacific CommissionNoumeaFrance
  6. 6.The Western Australian Marine Science Institution, Indian Ocean Marine Research CentreCrawleyAustralia

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