ME Saltwater TV AEFW

Crowd Funding: A Win For Reef Pest Research

by Justin Hester

In the world of reef keeping, hobbyists and scientists have not historically worked together.  Crowd-funding could be the vehicle that changes all that.   Recently Dr. Kate Rawlinson, a scientist and Cat Dybyla, a hobbyist have partnered to help the reef hobbyist world learn more about the dreaded Acropora Eating Flat Worms (AEFW) and they are using the crowd funding site called Micoryza to do it.  It is exciting to see science and hobby come together like this and many an SPS keeper is probably waiting with bated breath to hear about the results.

Scientific Methods + Reef Hobby = Win For All

In December, Dr Rawlinson appeared on a reef web video to explain how this partnership happened.  In this instance, the hobbyist  had a AEFW problem and looked to the scientific world for an expert in the field.  In this case she found flatworm scientist Dr. Kate Rawlinson.  By combining their resources and making their plans known to a larger audience through Micoryza, the hobbyists were able to meet their funding goal of $5,000  in just six days.

In new world of social media funding, it is nice to see a diversification from the traditional business start up direction. I suppose we can look at these new endeavors more like “crowd research”  as we see scientific advances shift into high gear.  In the reef keeping world this can lead to higher survival rate of a wider range of organisms which is always welcomed.  The demonstrated outpouring of support that this Mycoryza project got also gives us a glimpse at the possibilities of these two communities working together.

What Are Acro Eating FlatWorms (AEFW)?

Over the past 10-15 years, one single organism has been the bane of many an SPS keeper, the Acropora Eating Flatworm (AEFW).  These creatures are small (.25″ when adults) worm that is able to eat our corals, camouflage itself, and reproduce in our tanks without us usually knowing until its too late.   The AEFW eat the tissue of many, but not all, Acropora species and then lay their eggs on the white coral skeleton at the edges of the tissue.

It is believed that AEFW were introduced to the hobby around the time that Aussie corals started popping up.  This has long been a rumor, but Dr. Rawlinsons’ research is actually starting to lend this rumor more credence.  In her field work, she has recently discovered our little pest actually living in the wild on some Australian reefs.  The interesting thing is though, that in the wild, the AEFW is actually found at much lower population densities than in our tanks where they seem to reproduce like mice on a honeymoon!


AEFW eggs on the base of a maricultured coral we got in fall 2012

What we Know about AEFW:

-We know that their eggs can survive most, if not all, of our coral dips

-We know that the young AEFW can certainly move from coral to coral in a single tank

-We know that they grow from a too small to see juvenile into an almost half inch worm in less than a month ( per our experiments with QT controlled AEFW populations.)

-We know their eggs will always be on dead tissue or a frag plug at or near the base of the coral tissue, no further

-We know that certain dips like Coral Rx and a few others will stun or kill the adults

-We know that routine dipping or eradicating the food source have been the only proven methods of treatment to date.

AEFW Experimental Data Could Help Tackle This Pest Once And For All

Like anything we have studied in the natural world, a solid observational and data collection methodology are a foundation that we need in order to guide us to the next step.  In the case of AEFW, the crowd funding project that Dr. Rawlinson has put forward in conjunction with a reef hobbyist in Texas should speed up the time that scientific research trickles down to the reef hobby.  Their project can be found here on the scientific crowd funding site Micoryza  and at last count has already surpassed its $5000 funding limit. Specifically, Dr Rawlinson is looking to answer the following questions in this phase of the research:

  1. How long does it take for the eggs to hatch?
  2. Do they hatch as larvae or juveniles, or both?
  3. How long does it take for the worms to reach sexual maturity?
  4. How long can the newly hatched worms survive without food?
  5. How long can the adult survive without food?

Armed with these basic biological answers on AEFW, it appears that there will be subsequent phases to the team’s research.  We can only imagine how many coral tanks can be saved once they begin to learn more about the biology of these nasty reef pests.

Acropora eating flatworm AEFW

AEFW after dip in coral RX

ReefNation mini=experiments on AEFW

Last fall we were fortunate or unfortunate enough to find some AEFW and eggs on some corals that we brought in.  We were able to deal with these frags before they killed all our acropora corals by quickly moving them to our quarantine tank (QT) system.  There for the past 6 months or so we have been essentially culturing AEFW and periodically reducing their populations using a variety of known and some newly concocted methods.  As many reef keepers already know, killing these little buggers is both an art and a science. In our experience, a combination of regimented treatments, using many of the available coral dips, can over time kill the new hatch lings before they can lay eggs.  To date, nothing we have seen has been able to kill or make the eggs non-viable.  In the video you can see over a few minutes what coral Rx can do to hitchhiking AEFW’s that have begun to munch on a purple milli.  Make sure you move the settings to HD.

Where Else Can We Use Crowd Funding In The Reef Hobby

Learning more about the biological and reproductive habits of the reef environments we keep in our homes can only enhance our quest for a completely sustainable hobby.  Assuming the research done by Dr. Rawlinson is successful and can be used as a model going forward, we will have to think as hobbyists where do we go from here?  Can crowd funding have more impacts on the reef hobby and continue to bring the world of aquarists closer to the scientific community?  We certainly hope both happen!  We would also like to discuss with the possibility of running similar experiments on other reef pests like  Montipora eating nudibranchs, Red Bugs, etc.  Perhaps Dr. Rawlinson can check her address book for a marine nudibranch or crustacean specialist.  ReefNation would love to help!

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