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A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

A Giant Triton (Charonia tritonis) on an Indonesian Reef

Yesterday this blog took us to the depths of space to explore the frozen ice-moon of Triton.  Today we atone for that cold voyage with a trip to the inviting tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific.  In these vibrant waters can be found one of the greatest living gastropods, a prince among predatory sea snails, the mighty Charonia tritonis, (commonly known as the giant triton or Triton’s trumpet).

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

A Giant Triton climbs over a pillow coral in Hawaii

Charonia tritonis grows to over half a meter (20 inches) in length: it is one of the largest living snails in the world (and it is not much smaller than the biggest extant snails). Equipped with a powerful muscular foot, acute senses (particularly smell), and an agile tentacle-like proboscis, the snails are formidable hunters.  Additionally they are protected from predators—even big fierce ones–by their beautiful spiral shells which are vibrantly colored orange, brown, yellow, and cream.  Of course such a shell would become a liability for the snail if an animal ever evolved which killed the snails in order to harvest the magnificent shells solely for their beauty (but what are the chances of that?).

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell--which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

A man sounds a blast on a triton shell–which has spiritual significance in Hawaii

Giant tritons hunt at night.  Their main prey are echinoderms—starfish, which can be large powerful and armored.  Fortunately the snails are not just equipped with powerful muscles and superior brains.  They also have salivary glands that produce sulfuric acid AND a chemical which paralyzes starfish.  The tritons find starfish—even big spiny poisonous starfish like the invasive and all-consuming crown-of-thorns which bedevils the reefs of the Indo-Pacific—then hold them down and inject saliva into them.  As the starfish dissolves from within, the snails rip them apart and feast!

A triton kills a crown of thorns

A triton kills a crown of thorns

Tritons have a specific gender—they are male or female.  They seek each other out for courtship and the female then lays a large clutch of eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the young snails become part of the oceanic plankton for a (poorly understood) time before developing into adults.  Triton shells are esteemed by many cultures as sacred musical instruments.  The shells themselves are collector’s items and are arguably better known then the formidable long-lived predators which make them.  Although the snails are not threatened with extinction as such, there are fewer and fewer really big adult ones (or even small ones) on today’s reefs. This is a real shame, since those same reefs are being devoured by the horrible crown-of-thorns. Hopefully a new generation of divers and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the triton on the reef and leave them to their invaluable hunting.  Resist the urge to buy the beautiful shells and help save the reefs of the Indo Pacific!

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Here is a dramatic and visceral Pieta painted by Carlo Crivelli in 1476 for the church of San Domenico at Ascoli Piceno in the Marches.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an interactive web gallery which allows the viewer to magnify this painting in order to see fine details.  Notice how the crown of thorns has sunk its infected barbs into Christ’s head and how intricately Crivelli has rendered the veins of the figures’ hands.

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