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Robot Submarine Poisons Sea Stars To Save Coral Reefs 106

schwit1 writes: A 30-kilogram robotic yellow submarine is keeping sea stars in check with poison. The sea stars periodically have huge population booms, and a square kilometer of reef can be home to 100,000 of them. They'll kill off the reefs if left unchecked, but humans can only kill a couple sea stars per minute. The task is overwhelming but simple and repetitive, and thus ripe for automation. The COTSBot has "a maximum speed of over two meters per second and an endurance of over six hours. Five thrusters give it the capability of briefly hovering in the water column, giving it time to attack crown of thorns sea stars with an integrated poison injection system. It's completely autonomous, down to the identification and targeting of [sea stars] lurking among coral."
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Robot Submarine Poisons Sea Stars To Save Coral Reefs

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 05, 2015 @08:30AM (#50461893)

    First they came for the sea stars, but I said nothing...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's not like humans "correcting" eco-systems they brought off-kilter has ever gone wrong before.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I imagine these robots will soon fill the reefs just like cane toads in Oz.
    • We didn't even bring this particular ecosystem off kilter. This just happens from time to time. We should not be interfering. It is nature's way of cleaning house, just like the occasional hurricane stirs up nutrients in the ocean beds or the occasional forest fire burns down old growth and makes way for new life.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 05, 2015 @09:02AM (#50462001)

        Actually, we did. Rising ocean temps, dredge spoils and the various things that get into the water from agriculture have seen an explosion in the Crown of Thorns Starfish population, enough to be a threat to the Great Barrier Reef, they leave behind forests of dead, bleached coral, which takes hundreds of years to build up.

        • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

          Furthermore, the crown-of-thorns starfish is able to sense white privilege and feed on it.

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          Cores of major coral reefs also prove that ice ages completely and totally periodically destroy them. In fact they become way above sea level coastal formations.

      • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @10:28AM (#50462303)
        The article mentions it in passing, but the biggest contributor to the problem is over fishing of the large predators that should be present on the reefs - sharks, groupers, etc. That upsets the entire ecosystem.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          And so killing those large predators food source is a fantastic idea to fix everything. I wonder if this is toxic to those predators should they eat poisoned starfish?

          • by jblues ( 1703158 )

            I read the article for you. Executive summary: thiosulfate-citrate-bile salts-sucrose agar is harmless to just about everything but the Crown of Thorns sea star, which, despite it's bold, poisonous, thorny costume has evolved itself to be easy to break down in the stomachs of large predators / autonomous bile-salt inject yellow robots.

            I saw a few of these fuckers while snorkeling in Bohol last November. They crawl of nice, pretty blue coral and instantly it is white, dead and petrified.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          There's no fishing in the marine park and sharks don't eat starfish.

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      "I don't know why she swallowed the fly."

    • No, this is even worse. This is a natural cycle that they are screwing with. Oh, and the fact that they are using poison which will work its way up the food chain where it will end up killing off a large portion of the natural predators which will cause more overpopulation...
      There is a 100% chance of this creating havoc in the local ecosystem.
  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @08:39AM (#50461929)

    Prototype terminator version 0.001 in testing.

    Let's hope "SeaNet" doesn't become self-aware.


    Interesting use of technology, I hope it works well. This sort of thing might be a useful way to address the growing problem of invasive species, many of which are aquatic. It seems to be a preferable means of addressing the issue instead of trying to introduce more predator species in an attempt to control an invasive species.

    If it doesn't it should carry a "body cam" to review the kills to ensure is it working properly and not killing things it shouldn't.

    • it should carry a "body cam" to review the kills to ensure is it working properly and not killing things it shouldn't.

      If you see da po-lice, tell a brutha []!

  • ... and cause of the world's problems ?! Just out of curiousity, why the boom in sea star population? Does this happen regularly ie. part of a natural cycle? And does the interruption of that cycle have any repercussions?

    Question: should humans intervene in natural processes that they do not completely understand.

    • Question: should humans intervene in natural processes that they do not completely understand.

      All actions have consequences. We're already intervening in these natural processes in ways which we haven't even identified, let alone understand. We're pretty clear that the reefs are important to us. We're not driving anything to extinction to preserve them. It's probably justified here. As has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread, it's probably scads better than introducing some other species to do it; you can switch off the bots.

    • Fertilizer runoff. Coral eating starfish apparently thriveh in polluted water. Not a natural cycle at all.

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      They weren't anywhere near the reef until humans spread them there in bilge water. So but for us the reef wouldn't be threatened at all. In that sense, any population above zero is unnatural. The booms are caused by agricultural runoff.

      At this point, the closest we can get to non-intervention will be to remove every last one of them from the reef.

      • If we can slow the rate of predation enough then the coral will have time to adapt.
        We should also look for sections of the coral reef which do better against starfish and "breed" it.

    • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @11:31AM (#50462463)

      ... and cause of the world's problems ?! Just out of curiousity, why the boom in sea star population? Does this happen regularly ie. part of a natural cycle? And does the interruption of that cycle have any repercussions?

      Question: should humans intervene in natural processes that they do not completely understand.

      Their population growth is due to the nutrients in the water mostly caused by agricultural run-offs and dredging. It's not a natural cycle and they didn't start becoming a problem until the 70s.

      This is humans solving human problems. The crown of thorns are destroying many acres of reef at a time which have taken hundreds of years to grow. In terms of the impact of stopping them, coral reefs are the single most ecologically diverse places in the world, and a destroyed coral reef is about as ecologically diverse as a sandy ocean floor, which is to say an absolute wasteland. The loss of the coral reefs would be more devastating to ocean life than over-fishing, ocean acidification (well that also kills reefs), and widespread pollution.

      We have been performing population control on the Crown Of Thorns starfish for the best part of 30 years now. The only thing new here is that this machine is more efficient then sending teams of SCUBA divers into the water to perform the task.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This isn't an issue where "nature" will work itself out and we aren't slaughtering innocent sea stars wholesale. We as humans have messed up a good chunk of the reef with chemicals and pollution. The sea stars are forced to go eat the good part of the reef left we're trying to preserve because WE as humans took away their habitat. They have little natural predators, reproduce like crazy, and no commercial value.

  • I want to be the first to welcome our poison-injecting robotic overlords.

    I do hope whoever wrote the pattern recognition algorithm checked, double checked & triple checked it.
    And then sent it for code-review, static and dynamic code analyzers and finally
    open sourced it for the swarm of eyeballs that surely audit the code for free.

    • Pah! You're so last month. Now we design the design of the design via an asynchronous global supply chain made of turtles.

  • Biological controls (Score:4, Informative)

    by benjfowler ( 239527 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @10:22AM (#50462285)

    Allegedly they considered building robots, because the crown-of-thorns' natural enemy, the giant triton [] were nearly harvested to death, only eat one starfish a week, and only reproduce slowly in their natural environment.

    Technology aside, if a 20 kg carnivorous snail isn't cool, I'm not sure what is.

    Wonder if anybody has considered coming up with ways to efficiently breed these guys? I think they'd make awesome pets.

    • I must admit, a 20 kg carnivorous snail is pretty cool. But they apparently breed very slowly, a fact for which many other species may be very grateful.

    • by pubwvj ( 1045960 )

      It is probably quite feasible since the Queen Conch Strombus gigas is farmed commercially, bred, raised and sold for their meat as well as the aquarium trade. They are very cool critters. I had two for pets for many years. They're a big low out on walk about though... (I'm serious.)

    • by ras ( 84108 )

      It may be a 20kg snail, but I still find eating a starfish that grows up to almost 1 yard and has 1 inch poisonous spines impressive. A triton will chase a starfish, and the starfish runs when it senses the attacker - but it invariably looses the race against the snail.

      Given a mollusc can eat them and so do some fish, it is a bit surprising we haven't found a use for the starfish the the robot finds. Ground up for fish meal and fed to fish farms sounds like an idea.

      It's bloody typical of us Australian's.

  • by Drewdad ( 1738014 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @10:28AM (#50462301)

    ...we don't look like sea stars to some galactic race.

  • Production of the M.A.R.K. 13 has resumed after The Company has fixed the waterproofing process. 800 new jobs will be created as The Company enters full mass production of the unit ...
  • Seems we are taking sides in Mother Nature's struggles for survival.

    • It begs the question, "What animal keeps these critters populations down, and why isn't out there doing it?"
    • A single species of sea-star is a single species of sea-star. A coral reef is the home and foundation to one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Destroy the coral and the place turns into a wasteland.

      We should be taking sides. The human analogy is terrorists moving through a city and destroying it, displacing the population and leaving nothing in their wake.

  • ... until the COTSBots start reproducing out of control. And they evolve, having discovered that the prey on land is easier to pursue. Particularly when distracted by a species developing in symbiosis with COTSBot .... the iPhone.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So what about the dead rotting poison-riddled carcases? Are they going to disrupt the ecosystem?

    • There's a type of shrimp that preferentially eats crown-of-thorns sea stars. I wonder how their population will be affected.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        According to google that very particular type of cleaner shrimp when observed in the wild with the help of another specific type of worm killed a healthy crown of thorns in just over 2 weeks while it gobbled up coral to the very end.

    • by ridley4 ( 1535661 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @02:35PM (#50463223)

      Lucky us, it's not poison in the conventional sense. The injection is an agar medium that encourages the growth of pathogenic bacteria, in doing so artificially inducing lethal illness which kills the starfish by bacterial consumption, without introducing any harmful toxins into the ocean. I dug up the paper here, [] it's actually what my first concern was, bioamplification of the toxin from decomposers to higher-order predators. While COTS seem susceptible to the disease, with other nearby healthy ones, left uninjected, sometimes also becoming infected. Bonus points, another species they tested fared well. (They do note further research necessary, though.)

  • by MrKaos ( 858439 ) on Saturday September 05, 2015 @11:55AM (#50462543) Journal
    Lobsters eat sea star fish and are much tastier than a robot, perhaps we should breed thousands of tasty meals to eat up star fish.
  • Lionfish are taking over reefs in Florida. Luckily they are easy to spear since they just stay still. They should also be an easy target for something like this.

    • Lionfish swim in the water column, and they can move quite quickly when they want to.

      • All of the ones I've speared are sitting pretty motionless above the reef. I'm sure they could move quick but they don't seem to.

        • Probably because they don't have to. Not much is going to try to swallow one of those things. They are pretty well defended. Just advertizing their dangerous spines with their colorful garb seems to do the trick.

          • Exactly. Except for spearfishermen. Go to YouTube and look up spearfishing lionfish.

            • Are they tasty? I don't know anyone personally who has eaten lionfish, but it seems that I've heard good things.

              • Encouraging fishing them for food seems to be a major thrust (heh) of the attempt to exterminate lionfish here, or at least knock down their numbers.

                Clearly, someone's figured out how to make them tasty.
  • For those of you wondering what the fuck I'm talking about, consider this:

    1. Frozen chickens don't grow on trees. You want to eat meat? An animal has to die.
    2. Carrots were alive once. You're anti-hunting? Draw the line somewhere. Even fungus is life. You're gonna give up Quorn for your moral stance, or are you going to be a hypocrite?
    3. Ever take the train? Thank people like me for the fact that there are fewer rabbits digging under the ties, causing them to sink under their own weight and dropping away de

"For a male and female to live continuously together is... biologically speaking, an extremely unnatural condition." -- Robert Briffault