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Sea-snail perfume may help save coral reefs

The scent from a giant sea snail may be key to convincing coral-reef-munching starfish to move along and find something else to snack on.

Giant triton eats a starfish
A giant triton goes to town on a crown-of-thorns starfish. Australian Institute of Marine Science

The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system, located off the coast of Australia, is constantly under threat from a variety of sources, including pollution, coral disease and the unending hunger of the crown-of-thorns starfish. This particular starfish loves to chow down on coral and is a major natural threat to the reef.

Like all good villains, crown-of-thorns starfish have an archnemesis, the giant triton sea snail. Unfortunately, the snails are rare (having been hunted by people for their shells) and have a slow appetite, which means they can only down about one starfish per week. This may not sound like a very promising method of starfish pest control, but science may be able to step in and save the day. The snails, which can grow to around 20 inches in length, exude a scent that makes starfish flee.

"Our team at USC includes leading scientists who are molecular biologists and specialists in proteomics and metabolomics who can identify exactly what the scent molecule is," says Scott Cummins, a researcher with the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. "We hope to chemically synthesize the molecule, then use slow release baits to dispense the scent compound to control the movements of the starfish." The idea is the scent will drive the starfish away, reduce breeding and keep them off of particularly sensitive portions of the reef.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science released a video showing just how much the crown-of-thorns starfish hates the smell of a giant triton. Two starfish were held in side-by-side aquariums. One received plain seawater while the other received seawater a snail was sitting in. The starfish exposed to the snail juice wriggles and tries desperately to get away from the stench.

Eau de giant-sea-snail isn't likely to take off as a popular choice of fragrance for human use, but it could become a major new weapon in the battle to maintain the Great Barrier Reef and the variety of sea life it hosts.