, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 11-18

Population genetic studies of the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci (L.), in the Great Barrier Reef region

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Seven populations of the crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci, were compared genetically using starch gel electrophoresis in order to investigate the extent of genetic exchange throughout the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region. These populations extended from Lizard Island in the north to One Tree Island in the south, a distance of approximately 1300 km. Thirteen of 36 enzymes assayed were genetically interpretable, and 10 (77%) of these were polymorphic. Mean heterozygosity over all loci was 0.225. An analysis of the gene frequency heterogeneity between the populations using Wright's F ST statistic gave an overall F ST of 0.019. The mean unbiased value of Nei's genetic distance between the populations was 0.009. These values indicate a homogeneous genetic composition throughout the range, and are consistent with the hypothesis that gene flow between these populations is high, and that A. planci throughout the GBR region are members of a single, effectively panmictic population. Within this group, the Green Island population was most distinct genetically because of differences in allele frequencies at the MDH-1 locus. Although there is no rigorous method for determining the selective basis for such differences, it is argued that the differences observed in the Green Island population were the result of selection. The basis for selective differences was possibly food availability since, at the time of sampling, the Green Island A. planci were the remnants of a large, high-density population that caused extensive coral mortality, and suffered severe population decline as food became scarce. These findings are consistent with observations of a relatively ordered sequence of outbreaks from north to south along the GBR, suggesting that all outbreaks but the first are secondary. Control measures, both on the GBR and elsewhere, have been unsuccessful except on a very small scale. Unless a vulnerable part of the A. planci life cycle can be identified, it would seem that the greatest chance for successful control would be to identify and control the causes of the primary population outbreak.