Coral Reefs

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 79–85 | Cite as

Geological evidence for recurring outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish: a reassessment from an ecological perspective

  • J. K. Keesing
  • R. H. Bradbury
  • L. M. DeVantier
  • M. J. Riddle
  • G. De'ath


The abundance and distribution of Acanthaster planci skeletal elements in reef sediments have been presented as evidence that population outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef are not a new occurrence, but have been an integral part of the ecosystem for at least 7000 years on some reefs (Walbran et al. 1989a). Reassessment of the evidence shows that these claims are not justified and challenges the validity of several assumptions that are crucial to their thesis that outbreaks have been a recurrent phenomenon on the Great Barrier Reef. These are: (i) that the majority of starfish from outbreak populations remain and die on the host reef and that their skeletal elements add to the reef sediment, (ii) that reefs which have had recent A. planci outbreaks can be discriminated from those which have not by the abundance of starfish skeletal remains in recent sediments, (iii) that outbreaks will significantly increase the number of skeletal elements in reef sediments above normal background levels and, (iv) that the age of individual skeletal elements can be predicted from the age of their surrounding sediment or their depth in the sediment pile. We conclude that Walbran et al. do not have sufficient data to infer the outbreak history of A. planci from the sediment recored and that there are alternative interpretations of their findings. The possibility cannot be discounted that destructive population outbreaks of A. planci witnessed on the Great Barrier Reef since 1960 are unprecedented. The question of whether A. planci outbreaks are a naturally recurring phenomena or a novel, more recent development remains unanswered.


Background Level Sedimentology Sufficient Data Alternative Interpretation Great Barrier Reef 
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.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aller RC, Dodge RE (1974) Animal-sediment relationships in a tropical lagoon, Discovery Bay, Jamaica. J Mar Res 32:209–232Google Scholar
  2. Batham EG, Gowdy RW, Wolfson FH (1973) Acanthaster (Echinodermata, Asteroidea) in the Gulf of California. US Nat Mar Fish Serv, Fish Bull 71:927–942Google Scholar
  3. Cohen AS (1989) The taphonomy of gastropod shell accumulations in large lakes: an example from Lake Tanganyika, Africa. Paleobiology 15:26–45Google Scholar
  4. Davies PJ, Hughes H (1983) High-energy reef and terrigenous sedimentation, Boulder Reef, Great Barrier Reef. BMR J Aust Geol Geophys 8:201–209Google Scholar
  5. Endean R (1974) Acanthaster planci on the Great Barrier Reef. Proc 2nd Int Coral Reef Symp 1:563–576Google Scholar
  6. Fisk DA, Harriott VJ, Pearson RG (1988) The history and status of crown-of-thorns starfish and corals at Green Island Reef, Great Barrier Reef. Proc 6th Int Coral Reef Symp, 2:149–155Google Scholar
  7. Flood PG, Jell JS (1977) The effect of cyclone “David” (January 1976) on the sediment distribution patterns on Heron Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Proc 3rd Int Coral Reef Symp 2:120–125Google Scholar
  8. Frankel E (1977) Previous Acanthaster aggregations in the Great Barrier Reef Proc 3rd Int Coral Reef Symp 1:201–208Google Scholar
  9. Frankel E (1978) Evidence from the Great Barrier Reef of ancient Acanthaster aggregations. Atoll Res Bull 220:75–93Google Scholar
  10. Frith CA (1983) Some aspects of lagoon sedimentation and circulation at One Tree Reef, Southern Great Barrier Reef. BMR J Aust Geol Geophys 8:211–221Google Scholar
  11. Glynn PW (1973) Acanthaster: effect on coral reef growth in Panama. Science 180:504–506Google Scholar
  12. Glynn PW (1982) Acanthaster population regulation by a shrimp and a worm. Proc 4th Int Coral Reef Symp 2:607–612Google Scholar
  13. Glynn PW (1984) An amphinomid worm predator of the crown-of-thorns sea star and general predation on asteroids in eastern and western Pacific coral reefs. Bull Mar Sci 35:54–71Google Scholar
  14. Glynn PW (1985) Corallivore population sizes and feeding effects following El Nino (1982–1983) associated coral mortality in Panama. Proc 5th Coral Reef Congr 4:183–188Google Scholar
  15. Glynn PW (1988) Defence of corals and enhancement of coral diversity by territorial damselfishes. Proc 6th Int Coral Reef Symp 2:157–163Google Scholar
  16. Hines WW, Montgomery DC (1980) In: Probability and statistics in engineering and management science Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. 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
  18. Kettle BT, Lucas JS (1987) Biometric relationship between organ indices, fecundity, oxygen consumption and body size in Acanthaster planci (L.) (Echinodermata; Asteroidea). Bull Mar Sci 41:541–551Google Scholar
  19. Lourensz RS (1981) Tropical cyclones in the Australian region: July (1909 to June 1980). Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, p 111Google Scholar
  20. Lucas JS (1984) Growth and maturation of Acanthaster planci (L.) (Asteroidea) and hybrids in the laboratory, including observations on the effects of diet. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 79:129–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Miller AI (1988) Spatial resolution in subfossil molluscan remains: implications for paleobiological analysis. Paleobiology 14:91–103Google Scholar
  22. Moran PJ (1986) The Acanthaster phenomenon Oceanogr Mar Biol Ann Rev 24:379–480Google Scholar
  23. Moran PJ, Reichelt RE, Bradbury RH (1986) An assessment of the geological evidence for previous Acanthaster outbreaks. Coral Reefs 4:235–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moran PJ, Bradbury RH, Reichelt RE (1988) Distribution of recent outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) along the Great Barrier Reef: 1985–1986. Coral Reefs 7:125–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Pearson RG, Endean R (1969) A preliminary study of the coral predator Acanthaster planci on the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland Department of Harbours and Marine Fisheries Notes 3:27–55Google Scholar
  26. Raggatt T (1989) Crown of thorns starfish a 7000-year-old enemy. Townsville Bulletin, 17 NovemberGoogle Scholar
  27. Roberts G (1989) Crown of thorns attacks on Barrier Reef nothing new. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 MayGoogle Scholar
  28. Riddle MJ (1988) Cyclone and bioturbation effects on sediments from coral reef lagoons. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Sci 27:687–695Google Scholar
  29. Roads CH, Ormond RFG (1971) Studies on the crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) from investigations in the Red Sea: report of the third Cambridge Red Sea expedition, 1970. Cambridge Coral Starfish Research Group, Cambridge, 124pGoogle Scholar
  30. Suchanek TH, Colin PL, McMurty GM, Suchanek CS (1986) Bioturbation and redistribution of sediment radionuclides in Enewetak Atoll lagoon by callianassid shrimp: biological aspects. Bull Mar Sci 38:144–154Google Scholar
  31. Talbot FH, Talbot MS (1971) The Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster) and the Great Barrier Reef. Endeavour 30:38–42Google Scholar
  32. Tudhope AW (1983) Processes of lagoonal sedimentation and patch reef development, Davies Reef, Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Ph D thesis, University of EdinburghGoogle Scholar
  33. Tudhope AW, Scoffin TP (1984) The effects of Callianassa bioturbation on the preservation of carbonate grains in Davies Reef lagoon, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. J Sediment Petrol 54:1091–1096Google Scholar
  34. Walbran PD, Henderson RA, Faithful JW, Polach HA, Sparks RJ, Wallace G, Lowe DC (1989a) Crown of thorns starfish outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef: a geological perspective based upon the sediment record. Coral Reefs 8:67–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Walbran PD, Henderson RA, Jull AJT, Head MJ (1989b) Evidence from sediments of long-term Acanthaster planci predation on corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Science 245:847–850Google Scholar
  36. Zann L, Brodie J, Berryman C, Naqasima M (1987) Recruitment, ecology, growth and behaviour of juvenile Acanthaster planci (L.) (Echinodermata: Asteroidea). Bull Mar Sci 41:561–575Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. K. Keesing
    • 1
  • R. H. Bradbury
    • 1
  • L. M. DeVantier
    • 1
  • M. J. Riddle
    • 1
  • G. De'ath
    • 2
  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsville MCAustralia
  2. 2.School of Tropical Veterinary ScienceJames Cook University of North QueenslandTownsvilleAustralia

Personalised recommendations