Marine Biology

, Volume 162, Issue 8, pp 1695–1704 | Cite as

Localized outbreaks of Acanthaster planci at an isolated and unpopulated reef atoll in the Chagos Archipelago

  • R. C. Roche
  • M. S. Pratchett
  • P. Carr
  • J. R. Turner
  • D. Wagner
  • C. Head
  • C. R. C. Sheppard
Short note


Outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), Acanthaster planci, have occurred at many locations throughout the Indo-Pacific and are a major contributor to widespread coral loss and reef degradation. The causes of outbreaks remain controversial, but are commonly attributed to anthropogenically elevated nutrients and/or over-fishing. If so, it seems unlikely that outbreaks would occur in reef systems that are largely isolated from anthropogenic disturbances. However, high densities of COTS were recently observed on reefs in the Chagos Archipelago, a remote group of atolls and banks within the central Indian Ocean, which experience very limited anthropogenic influence. Aggregations of COTS were first noticed at Eagle Island in 2012, which, although unquantified, appeared to be at outbreak levels, and very high densities (1624 km−2) were subsequently recorded at Danger Island in 2013. While these islands are uninhabited by humans, it is possible that nutrient inputs result from upwelling zones around the Archipelago, or high densities of breeding seabirds. Among islands within the Great Chagos Bank, densities of the red-footed booby Sula sula ranged from 8 to 7888 individuals km−2, with associated guano input ranging from 96 to 25,381 kg island−1 year−1. However, Danger and Eagle Islands where high COTS densities were recorded, had both high and low levels of guano production, respectively, which suggests that outbreaks may not be directly linked to guano nutrient enrichment. Other factors which might be responsible for intermittent COTS outbreaks should be considered in isolated reef systems such as the Chagos Archipelago.


Coral Reef Great Barrier Reef Atoll Coral Cover Coral Loss 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank the captain and crew of the M/V Pacific Marlin for all the work and knowledge that they contributed to this work. We thank the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) administration for assistance and permission to carry out research within the Chagos Archipelago. The authors would like to thank Prof John Pearse and additional anonymous reviewers for their contributions to the manuscript. This research was funded by a UK government Darwin Initiative Grant.


  1. Allaway WG, Ashford AE (1984) Nutrient input by seabirds to the forest on a coral island of the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 19:297–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Babcock RC, Mundy CN (1992) Reproductive biology, spawning and field fertilization rates of Acanthaster planci. Mar Freshw Res 43:525–533CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baird AH, Pratchett MS, Hoey AS, Herdiana Y, Campbell SJ (2013) Acanthaster planci is a major cause of coral mortality in Indonesia. Coral Reefs 32:803–812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bibby CJ, Burgess ND, Hill DA (1992) Bird census techniques. Academic Press, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  5. Birkeland C (1982) Terrestrial runoff as a cause of outbreaks of Acanthaster planci (Echinodermata: Asteroidea). Mar Biol 69:175–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Birkeland C (1989) The Faustian traits of the crown-of-thorns starfish. Am Sci 77:154–163Google Scholar
  7. Birkeland C, Lucas J (1990) Acanthaster planci: major management problem of coral reefs. CRC Press Boca Raton, FloridaGoogle Scholar
  8. Brodie J, Fabricius K, De’ath G, Okaji K (2005) Are increased nutrient inputs responsible for more outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish? An appraisal of the evidence. Mar Poll Bull 51:266–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bruno JF, Selig ER (2007) Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2:e711CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carr P (2013) Factors influencing breeding island selection of red-footed booby Sula sula (Linn 1766) in the Chagos Archipelago, central Indian Ocean and the implications for future management plans. University of Warwick, CoventryGoogle Scholar
  11. Colin PL (1977) The reefs of Cocos-Keeling Atoll, Eastern Indian Ocean. Proc 3rd Int Coral Reef Symp 1:35–42Google Scholar
  12. De’ath G, Fabricius KE, Sweatman H, Puotinen M (2012) The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:17995–17999CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dilmahamod AF (2014) The links between the Seychelles-Chagos Thermocline Ridge and large scale climate modes and primary productivity; and the annual cycle of chlorophyll-a. University of Cape Town, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  14. Dulvy NK, Freckleton RP, Polunin NVC (2004) Coral reef cascades and the indirect effects of predator removal by exploitation. Ecol Lett 7:410–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Endean R (1976) Destruction and recovery of coral reef communities. Biol Geol Coral Reefs 3:215–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Endean R, Chesher RH (1973) Temporal and spatial distribution of Acanthaster planci population explosions in the Indo-West Pacific region. Biol Conserv 5:87–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fabricius KE, Okaji K, De’ath G (2010) Three lines of evidence to link outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns seastar Acanthaster planci to the release of larval food limitation. Coral Reefs 29:593–605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hermes JC, Reason CJC (2008) Annual cycle of the South Indian Ocean (Seychelles-Chagos) thermocline ridge in a regional ocean model. J Geophys Res 113:C04035CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Houk P, Raubani J (2010) Acanthaster planci outbreaks in Vanuatu coincide with ocean productivity, furthering trends throughout the Pacific Ocean. J Oceanogr 66:435–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Houk P, Bograd S, van Woesik R (2007) The transition zone chlorophyll front can trigger Acanthaster planci outbreaks in the Pacific Ocean: historical confirmation. J Oceanogr 63:149–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Keesing JK, Lucas JS (1992) Field measurement of feeding and movement rates of the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci (L.). J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 156:89–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kohler KE, Gill SM (2006) Coral point count with excel extensions (CPCe): a visual basic program for the determination of coral and substrate coverage using random point count methodology. Comput Geosci 32:1259–1269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lane DJW (2011) Acanthaster planci impact on coral communities at permanent transect sites on Bruneian reefs, with a regional overview and a critique on outbreak causes. J Mar Biol Ass 92:803–809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lucas JS (1982) Quantitative studies of feeding and nutrition during larval development of the coral reef asteroid Acanthaster planci (L.). J Exp Mar Bio Ecol 65:173–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McCauley DJ, DeSalles PA, Young HS, Dunbar RB, Dirzo R, Mills MM, Micheli F (2012) From wing to wing: the persistence of long ecological interaction chains in less-disturbed ecosystems. Sci Rep 2:409CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Mendonça VM, Jabri Al MM, Ajmi Al I, Muharrami Al M, Areimi Al M, Aghbari Al HA (2010) Persistent and expanding population outbreaks of the corallivorous starfish Acanthaster planci in the northwestern Indian Ocean: are they really a consequence of unsustainable starfish predator removal through overfishing in coral reefs, or a response to a changing environment. Zool Stud 49:108–123Google Scholar
  27. Miller I, Sweatman H, Cheal A, Emslie M, Johns K, Jonker M, Osborne K (2015) Origins and implications of a primary crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak in the southern Great Barrier Reef. J Mar Biol 2015:1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Moran PJ, De’ath G (1992) Estimates of the abundance of the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci in outbreaking and non-outbreaking populations on reefs within the Great Barrier Reef. Mar Biol 113:509–515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Olson RR, Olson MH (1989) Food limitation of planktotrophic marine invertebrate larvae: does it control recruitment success? Annu Rev Ecol Syst 20:225–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Olson RR, Bosch I, Pearse JS (1987) The hypothesis of antarctic larval starvation examined for the asteroid Odontaster validus. Limnol Oceanogr 32:686–690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Potts DC (1981) Crown-of-thorns starfish: man-induced pest or natural phenomenon? In: Kitching RE, Jones RE (eds) The ecology of pests: some Australian case histories. CSIRO, MelbourneGoogle Scholar
  32. Pratchett MS (2010) Changes in coral assemblages during an outbreak of Acanthaster planci at Lizard Island, northern Great Barrier Reef (1995–1999). Coral Reefs 29:717–725CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pratchett MS, Pisapia C, Sheppard CRC (2013) Background mortality rates for recovering populations of Acropora cytherea in the Chagos Archipelago, central Indian Ocean. Mar Environ Res 86:29–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Pratchett MS, Caballes C, Rivera-Posada JA, Sweatman HPA (2014) Limits to understanding and managing outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster spp.) Oceanogr. Mar Biol 52:133–200Google Scholar
  35. Rivera-Posada J, Owens L, Caballes CF, Pratchett MS (2012) The role of protein extracts in the induction of disease in Acanthaster planci. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 429:1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sheppard C (2009) Large temperature plunges recorded by data loggers at different depths on an Indian Ocean atoll: comparison with satellite data and relevance to coral refuges. Coral Reefs 28:399–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sheppard CRC, Spalding M, Bradshaw C, Wilson S (2002) Erosion vs. recovery of coral reefs after 1998 El Niño: chagos Reefs, Indian Ocean. Ambio 31:40–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sheppard CRC, Ateweberhan M, Bowen BW, Carr P, Chen CA, Clubbe C, Craig MT, Ebinghaus R, Eble J, Fitzsimmons N, Gaither MR, Gan C-H, Gollock M, Guzman N, Graham NAJ, Harris A, Jones R, Keshavmurthy S, Koldewey H, Lundin CG, Mortimer JA, Obura D, Pfeiffer M, Price ARG, Purkis S, Raines P, Readman JW, Riegl B, Rogers A, Schleyer M, Seaward MRD, Sheppard ALS, Tamelander J, Turner JR, Visram S, Vogler C, Vogt S, Wolschke H, Yang JM-C, Yang S-Y, Yesson C (2012) Reefs and Islands of the Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean: why it is the world’s largest no-take marine protected area. Aquatic Conserv: Mar Freshw Ecosyst 22:232–261CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sweatman H (2008) No-take reserves protect coral reefs from predatory starfish. Curr Biol 18:R598–R599CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Timmers MA, Bird CE, Skillings DJ, Smouse PE, Toonen RJ (2012) There’s no place like home: crown-of-thorns outbreaks in the Central Pacific are regionally derived and independent events. PLoS ONE 7:e31159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Turner J, Klaus R (2005) Coral reefs of the Mascarenes, Western Indian Ocean. Phil Trans Royal Soc A 363:229–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Uthicke S, Schaffelke B, Byrne M (2009) A boom–bust phylum? Ecological and evolutionary consequences of density variations in echinoderms. Ecol Monogr 79:3–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Vogler C, Benzie J, Lessios H, Barber P, Worheide G (2008) A threat to coral reefs multiplied? Four species of crown-of-thorns starfish. Biol Lett 4:696–699CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Vogler C, Benzie J, Barber PH, Erdmann MV, Ambariyanto Sheppard C, Tenggardjaja K, Gérard K, Wörheide G (2012) Phylogeography of the crown-of-thorns starfish in the Indian Ocean. PLoS ONE 7:e43499CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wilson BR, Stoddart J (1988) A thorny problem—crown-of-thorns starfish in WA. Landscope 3:35–39Google Scholar
  46. Wolfe K, Graba-Landry A, Dworjanyn SA, Byrne M (2015) Larval starvation to satiation: influence of nutrient regime on the success of Acanthaster planci. PLoS ONE 10:e0122010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Young HS, McCauley DJ, Dunbar RB, Dirzo R (2010a) Plants cause ecosystem nutrient depletion via the interruption of bird-derived spatial subsidies. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107:2072–2077CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Young HS, Shaffer SA, McCauley DJ, Foley DG, Dirzo R, Block BA (2010b) Resource partitioning by species but not sex in sympatric boobies in the central Pacific Ocean. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 403:291–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. C. Roche
    • 1
  • M. S. Pratchett
    • 2
  • P. Carr
    • 3
  • J. R. Turner
    • 1
  • D. Wagner
    • 4
  • C. Head
    • 5
    • 6
  • C. R. C. Sheppard
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Ocean ScienceBangor UniversityMenai BridgeUK
  2. 2.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK
  4. 4.NOAA Papahnaumokuākea Marine National MonumentHonoluluUSA
  5. 5.Department of ZoologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  6. 6.Zoological Society of LondonConservation ProgrammesLondonUK

Personalised recommendations