New Risk for Coral Reefs: Coral-Eating Worm

Written by on April 14, 2014 in Marine Life

Researchers from the University of Southampton have identified a new threat for coral reefs: a coral-eating flatworm.

Acropora. Photo credit: NOAA.

Acropora. Photo credit: NOAA.

This parasitic worm, Amakusaplana acroporae, can cause “significant damage” to coral reefs — it can wipe out entire coral cultures in a short period of time. It is nearly invisible when it sits on its favorite host, the staghorn coral Acropora, and researchers were able to determine how it accomplishes this “excellent camouflage.”

“When eating the coral tissue it also takes up the symbiotic alga of the coral,” Professor Jörg Wiedenmann explained in a news release. “Instead of digesting them completely, it keeps a certain number of them alive and distributes them in its guts so that it perfectly mimics the appearance of the coral. Moreover, it also incorporates the green fluorescent protein pigments that lend the glowing greenish colouration to the coral host to perfect its camouflage.”

The parasite was only scientifically described recently and has only been found in the wild in one location on the Great Barrier Reef. It has no known predators and it can only be controlled by quarantine in land-based cultures. The researchers note that if it was accidentally introduced into the wild, it could be devastating for entire reefs.

“It is important to continue to raise the awareness among aquarium hobbyists that tank inhabitants should never be returned to the wild, since this might unintentionally contribute to the spread of parasites and diseases,” Professor Wiedenmann said.

To learn more, read the full news release: Devil in disguise: A small coral-eating worm may mean big trouble for reefs.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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