The number of coral-plundering crown of thorns starfish could boom from some 12 million to 60 million over the next four years, the Brisbane Times reports, and for Australia's Great Barrier Reef that would be akin to "a locust plague devastating vegetation," says Glen Holmes, co-author of The Starfish That Eat The Reef. This winter, though, an aquatic robot will be deployed to help slow the invasion of the invertebrates … by killing them, Scientific American reports. The COTSbot, developed at the Queensland University of Technology, is a small submarine outfitted with cameras, sonar, GPS, and a syringe-tipped arm.
Following a pre-programmed path along the reef, the robot scans for crown of thorns starfish. Once it identifies its target, the COTSbot pumps it full of bile salts that, as Scientific American puts it, "digest the animal from the inside" before it can separate and regenerate (one starfish can produce millions of young). The COTSbot, which can kill more than 200 starfish in eight hours, will augment the efforts of human divers. “It's now so good it even ignores our 3D-printed decoys and targets only live starfish,” one researcher says. It is believed the starfish has destroyed some 230 square miles of live coral in the past three decades, per the Times, which says the outbreak may be linked to starfish-nourishing algal blooms resulting from fertilizer runoff. Overfishing of the starfish's predators may also be to blame, per Scientific American. Check out the COTSbot in action in this video. (Read more Great Barrier Reef stories.)