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Science

Predator versus predator: Giant sea snails take on reef-eating starfish

Scientists in Australia look to rare mollusc to protect Great Barrier Reef

A giant triton sea snail devours a crown of thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef. (Courtesy of Australian Institute of Marine Science)

SYDNEY -- In the warm tropical waters of northeast Australia, a potential battle is looming between two exotic predators of the sea. Its outcome could well determine the environmental health of one of the world's greatest natural wonders -- the Great Barrier Reef.

On one side is a giant sea snail that was hunted almost to the point of extinction 50 years ago because its beautiful swirled shell was so admired by collectors. On the other side, the sea snail's prey is the fast-multiplying crown of thorns starfish, a spiky venomous predator whose voracious appetite for live coral has laid waste to vast swathes of the magnificent coral formations that grow along the Great Barrier Reef's 2,300km length.

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