Research reveals pest’s adaptive abilities


New research has confirmed that an invasive species is rapidly adapting to different ecosystems along the coast, allowing it to spread fast and threatening the health of the marine environment.

A team of Deakin University researchers have been studying the Northern Pacific Seastar (Asterias amurensis) in Australia to better understand its potential to expand its geographical range.

Northern Pacific Seastar (Asterias Amurensis) adult. Photo: Mark Richardson
Northern Pacific Seastar (Asterias Amurensis) adult. Photo: Mark Richardson

The invasive seastar species originates from Japan and is a voracious predator which has a major impact on the marine food chain, devastating marine wildlife.

Deakin University PhD student Mark Richardson has been conducting research to test whether its larvae have the ability to cope with elevated water temperatures, which may determine the seastar’s potential range.

“The experiments have established that Northern Pacific Seastar larvae from Port Phillip Bay have several genetic differences that allow them to adapt to the local environment.

Northern Pacific Seastar larvae viewed under a microscope in the experiment to analyse its adaptive abilities. Photo: Mark Richardson
Northern Pacific Seastar larvae viewed under a microscope in the experiment to analyse its adaptive abilities. Photo: Mark Richardson

“The same experiments were performed on native Japanese Northern Pacific Seastars to evaluate their genetic profiles and see whether the individuals living in Australia have developed greater tolerance to higher water temperatures.

“The results indicate the Northern Pacific Seastars in Australia have a higher ability to thrive in elevated water temperatures compared to the native Japanese individuals”, Mr Richardson said.

The heightened ability for the seastar to adapt to different water temperatures could pose a threat to the native marine wildlife along the East Coast of Australia.

The Northern Pacific Seastar spreads through ocean currents and could infest waters eastwards from Port Phillip Bay along the coast.

Project leader Dr. Craig Sherman from Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the experiments conducted on seastar larvae would improve understanding about this invasive species in Australia.

“From this research we have developed a better understanding about how seastar populations are connected and how this species is adapting and spreading along the coast.

“We are interested in the ecological impacts the seastar is having on marine communities and the rapid evolution the seastar undertakes to survive in the environment,” said Dr Sherman.

The water temperature research will be able to provide information for future marine pest management strategies in Australia.

Marine pests threaten our local marine environments. To find out more about what marine pests to look out for click here.

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