Larval phenotypic plasticity in the boom-and-bust crown-of-thorns seastar, Acanthaster planci

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Wolfe, K, Graba-Landry, A, Dworjanyn, SA & Byrne, M 2015, 'Larval phenotypic plasticity in the boom-and-bust crown-of-thorns seastar, Acanthaster planci', Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol. 539, pp. 179-189.

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Many echinoderm larvae exhibit phenotypic plasticity: a change in phenotype in response to environmental food levels. We investigated phenotypic plasticity in the larvae of the crown-of-thorns seastar Acanthaster planci, an opportunistic boom-and-bust species with larvae that have a strong response to food conditions. The increased predation pressure resulting from outbreaks (population explosions) of A. planci is deleterious to coral reefs, but the link between population outbreaks and larval ecology is poorly understood. We hypothesised that the larvae of A. planci would have a different morphological profile in the oligotrophic conditions typical of tropical waters than in the eutrophic conditions associated with increased nutrients. We predicted that larvae reared in low food conditions would increase their ciliated band length to enhance feeding potential. Larvae were fed algal concentrations representing starvation (0 cells ml-1), low food (oligotrophic; 1000 cells ml-1), high food (eutrophic; 10000 cells ml-1) or excessive food (100000 cells ml-1) conditions. A phenotypic response was evident. Larvae in the 2 high food treatments had a shorter ciliated band length relative to body size. Conversely, larvae in the starvation and low food treatments had longer ciliated bands relative to body size, a change that would enhance particle capture capacity and facilitate larval success. This plastic response of the larvae of A. planci could have flow-on effects to adult populations, potentially facilitating population outbreaks.

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