Elusive coral predator discovered in the wild

Aug 02, 2012
An extreme close-up of the Acropora-eating flatworm.

(Phys.org) -- It’s a ravenous predator, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. But unlike many ocean predators that struggle in an aquarium setting, this one has only been found in captivity. Until now.

Kate Rawlinson, a biology postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie in Brian Hall's lab, is co-author of a paper published in PLoS ONE published this week documenting the first confirmed identification of Amakusaplana acroporae in the wild. The polyclad flatworm, known commonly as the AEFW (Acropora-eating flatworm), has become a notorious thorn in the side of aquaria enthusiasts.

“It’s been a problematic predator in coral aquariums for the past decade,” explains Dr. Rawlinson. “It eats Acropora corals, can destroy entire colonies and is very hard to get rid of.”

Small, hard to detect

Researchers always believed that the species originally came from the ocean, entering the aquarium trade on fragments of coral from the reef or from coral farms, and passed between growers as they share fragments to grow new reefs.

A reef damaged by the AEFW. (Marc Levenson photo)

“But no one had ever seen it in the wild,” adds Dr. Rawlinson. A big reason for that is its size: ranging from 4 milimetres to 2 centimetres, it’s extremely hard to see with the naked eye.

“It is small and very well-camouflaged... it is easily transported between aquaria without detection.”

Dr. Rawlinson was part of the team that gave the AEFW its formal scientific name, and was eager to see if it could be located in its natural habitat. She found a willing partner in Jessica Stella, a PhD candidate at James Cook University in Australia and an expert in invertebrate fauna in coral reefs. Together, they looked at some unidentified specimens and, following Dr. Rawlinson’s molecular analysis, confirmed that they had found what they were looking for.

Finding a biological control

The discovery actually brings forth more questions than answers. To start, while they know the flatworm feeds on in the wild, they’re not yet certain if it causes the same type of catastrophic damage as it does in captivity. They suspect that it might have natural predators – and figuring out what those are could be incredibly important to stopping the flatworm’s spread in captivity.

“This sets the stage for future research on its impact on wild reefs – and also to identify biological controls that could be used to combat problematic infestations in aquaria.”

Explore further: Can penguins tell us how far the Cretaceous diving bird Hesperornis wandered?

More information: dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0042240

Related Stories

Isolated reefs regenerate faster: study

Nov 28, 2011

A recent study published in CSIRO’s Marine & Freshwater Research reveals isolated reefs may have a better ability to regenerate compared to those closer to human activity.

Coral rehab finding offers hope for Great Barrier Reef

Sep 05, 2011

Coral ecosystems cope much better than was first thought when the reef habitat is fragmented, a new study has found, meaning that efforts to restore even small parts of the damaged Great Barrier Reef could ...

New models to predict coral bleaching

May 17, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Curtin University researchers have used computational fluid dynamics and powerful supercomputers to create new models for understanding and predicting coral bleaching.

Recommended for you

Amazonian shrimps: An underwater world still unknown

43 minutes ago

A study reveals how little we know about the Amazonian diversity. Aiming to resolve a scientific debate about the validity of two species of freshwater shrimp described in the first half of the last century, ...

Factors that drive sexual traits

1 hour ago

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.