Furry crab proves a life saver for Great Barrier Reef
A FURRY coral crab is proving an unlikely helper in the fight against deadly white syndrome on the Great Barrier Reef.
James Cook University researchers on Lizard Island have found how the tiny crab, previously blamed for coral deaths, actually works to protect its coral home, likening them to the maggots that healed Russell Crowe's shoulder wound in the film Gladiator.
Marine scientist Joseph Pollock said white syndrome a deadly disease that disintegrates coral tissue had a devastating effect on the Reef.
"The disease is pretty nasty. Essentially, the coral's tissue just falls off of the skeleton and it is often fatal to the coral," he said.
"Imagine your skin and muscle starting to fall off at your fingertips and spreading over the entire body leaving just the skeleton."
Mr Pollock said it was not entirely clear how the crabs (Cymo melanodactylus) slowed the disease. But it may be similar to maggot debridement therapy, where the creatures eat away dead tissue to promote healing.
He likened it to actor Russell Crowe's character in the film Gladiator when he has his shoulder wound cleaned by maggots.
"Essentially, the crabs could be slowing the disease by simply feeding on sloughing coral tissue and potentially harmful microbes at the lesion front," Mr Pollock said.
Initially, it was thought the crabs were to blame for the disease, rather than helping cure it.
The joint JCU-Australian Institute of Marine Science study, based at the Lizard Island research station, 240km north of Cairns, is the first to show the potential that the coral-dwelling invertebrates have to slow disease progression on their host.
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Breakthrough: A furry coral crab is proving an unlikely helper in the fight against deadly white syndrome on the Great Barrier Reef.