Seeker Archives

Vinegar Could Save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The war against the crown-of-thorns starfish may be shortened by a weapon found in many households.

A common household ingredient may help conservationists win the fight against a destructive starfish that is wreaking havoc across the Great Barrier Reef.

In recent decades, crown-of-thorns starfish have decimated coral across the reef. The starfish naturally occur in low numbers throughout the Indo-Pacific, feeding on coral and forming an important part of marine ecosystems under normal circumstances.

Several times in recent decades, however, crown-of-thorns starfish numbers have skyrocketed, leading to harmful coral overconsumption that takes decades to reverse. According to a 2012 study from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, crown-of-thorns starfish were one the top causes of coral losses over the past three decades.

Life In Australia's Great Barrier Reef: Photos

Scientists aren't sure exactly what has caused the repeated starfish outbreaks, although a leading theory links crown-of-thorns population growth with the availability of phytoplankton, a key source of nutrition for starfish larvae.

Thus far, controlling the booming population has proved to be difficult. "Divers use 10 or 12 ml of ox-bile to kill each . It's expensive, requires permits and has to be mixed to the right concentration," James Cook University scientist Lisa Bostrom-Einarsson explains in a news release.

In a newly published study, however, Bostrom-Einarsson and her colleagues reveal that household vinegar is a much simpler and cheaper way to effectively control the starfish population.

In laboratory trials, 100% of crown-of-thorns starfish injected with vinegar were completely dead within 48 hours and left to be safely consumed by fish.

LEGO-Like Ocean Reef Shelters Sea Life: Photos

Bostrom-Einarsson notes that further field trials must be conducted before researchers can confirm that the vinegar injections can rolled out on a larger scale.

"There's no reason to think it won't work or it'll be dangerous, but we have to be sure," she adds.

Furthermore, injecting individual starfish is a daunting task: current estimates peg the starfish population between 4 and 12 million. While injections can be used to save individual reefs, population control methods that can be widely rolled out are still under development.

Article originally appeared on Discovery's blog Discovrd.

The war against the crown-of-thorns starfish may be shortened by a weapon found in many households.

A pair of Common reef cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus) hovers above a patch of hard coral located on the Far Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. With the ocean warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, coupled with land runoff, marine pollution and coastal development -- life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef is threatened from all sides and may be placed on the "in danger" designation for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Can Australia meet the challenge to do a better job of protection by 2014? Here's some photos of what's at risk.

Clownfish protect their eggs hidden in a sea anemone on the Great Barrier Reef.

The most-loved Heart Reef among the Whitsunday Islands in the Great Barrier Reef is part of the protected off-limits areas to SCUBA divers and snorklers.

Three sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef.

A flying gurnard (Dactyloptena orientalis), spreads out large pectorals to scare away enemies on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

A ribbon eel in the Great Barrier Reef.

The poisonous blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) stalks prey among the coral.

The size isn't intimidating, but the deadly poison is; divers wear gloves to hold the blue-ringed octopus.

A black-blotched moray eel at home in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Christmas tree tube worms on the Great Barrier Reef.

The polyps on this stalk of Acropora echinata, a type of Staghorn coral, show vividly colored tips.

Many reefs around the world are threatened by bleaching, as sea temperatures become too warm and stress the corals. The high temperatures kill the colorful polyps, and leave a reef cemetery of coral skeletons.

Staghorn Coral release eggs and sperm in a mass spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef.

The head of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus), near Ningaloo Reef in West Australia - Indian Ocean. Whale sharks feed on the eggs and sperm released from coral during massive spawning events a few days after the full moon between October and December.

What goes in must come out. A sea cucumber (Thelnota ananas) leaves a trail of waste as it processes its food.

An olive sea snake explores Alcyonarian coral.

The head of an Ocellated Epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum), in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Sea level rise poses a real threat to many parts of Australia. Already increased coastal erosion as a result of sea level rise is evident, as here where trees have been undercut and toppled by erosion on Green Island off Cairns in Queensland, Australia.

A rusting anchor chain rests amid the skeletons of pieces of hard coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Marine pollution comes in many different forms, but always from human hands. Greater protection and awareness of human impact on the reef is critical.