Dalhousie researcher discovers elusive coral reef predator in the wild
In a paper published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, Dalhousie’s Kate Rawlinson, a postdoctoral fellow in Biology, and her co-author Jessica Stella (James Cook University) announce the first identified discovery of the Acropora-eating flatworm (AEFW) in the wild. The species had previously only been found in captivity, where it has been known to feed on and destroy aquarium-reared reef-building corals.
The species, Amakusaplana acroporae, first appeared in aquaria about a decade ago, and feeds on coral, leaving small white dots as it feeds and, in extreme cases, killing the coral completely.
While it was believed that the species came from the ocean, entering the aquarium trade on coral fragments from natural reefs, it had never been located in the wild until now.
The flatworm is small—ranging from 4 milimetres to 2 centimetres—and very hard to see with the naked eye due to their excellent camouflage.
Eager to find the AEFW in its natural habitat, Dr. Rawlinson paired up with Jessica Stella from James Cook University in Australia, an expert in invertebrate fauna of coral reefs. They found the flatworm after conducting morphological and molecular analysis on unidentified specimens collected from Great Barrier Reef.
Discovering the AEFW in the wild provides an opportunity to learn more about its feeding habits and, hopefully, identify natural predators that can be used as biological controls in aquaria.
“It’s been a problematic predator in coral aquariums for the past decade. It eats Acropora corals, can destroy entire colonies and is very hard to get rid of.” -- Kate Rawlinson, postdoctoral fellow, Biology
“But no one had ever seen it in the wild. It is so small and very well-camouflaged that it is easily transported between aquaria without detection.” -- Kate Rawlinson, postdoctoral fellow, Biology
“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.” -- Kate Rawlinson, postdoctoral fellow, Biology
Acropora coral infested with AEFW.
A close-up of the AEFW.
AEFW on coral (arrows pointing to the AEFW).
- Regis Dudley, Communications Officer, Dalhousie University, 902.494.4105, email@example.com