Injecting them with ox bile, dosing them with vinegar, or simply diving in and removing them. These are some of the ways researchers have tried to limit the devastation caused to Australia's Great Barrier Reef by the crown-of-thorns starfish, but now they have a new tool at their disposal. Researchers have sequenced the genome of the prickly predator and identified proteins that they use to communicate and gather, something that could be replicated to lure them away from the fragile reef.

"For an already struggling Great Barrier Reef, and indeed any reefs across the Indo-Pacific region, these starfish pose an enormous threat due to the ability of a single female to produce up to 120 million offspring in one spawning season," said Professor Bernard Degnan from the University of Queensland, who led the research."They feast on the coral and leave it bleached white and vulnerable to destruction in heavy storms."

By sequencing the animal's genome, the researchers established that the crown-of-thorns starfish gather en masse for reproductive purposes due to the secretion of pheromones. They were able to decode this scent and say that it could be recreated to form traps that draw in large numbers of the animals for much more efficient removal.

"Now we've found the genes the starfish use to communicate, we can begin fabricating environmentally-safe baits that trick them into gathering in one place, making it easier to remove reproductively-primed animals," says Degnan.

The researchers say this type of approach could be used to clamp down on other invasive species in other parts of the world, such as sea snails.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: University of Queensland