Story at a glance
- Sunflower sea stars are a critically endangered species threatened by climate change and a recent epidemic.
- Scientists have successfully bred baby sea stars in a laboratory for the first time and hope to reintroduce them into the wild.
- The seastar plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of the Northeastern Pacific ecosystem.
Thousands of baby sea stars are giving hope to scientists after an epidemic nearly wiped out the global population in 2013, threatening to disrupt the oceanic food chain.
“What we’re attempting to do here is to raise a new generation of sea stars in the lab,” said Jason Hodin, research scientist at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs, in a release from the school. “We’re hoping that our efforts can help in the process of recovery of the sunflower sea star and, ultimately, recovery of the health of ecosystems like the kelp forests that are under threat right now.”
A marine heat wave coupled with a sea star wasting disease decimated the population from Mexico to Alaska, especially in the Northeast Pacific, until the species was declared critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But if these baby sea stars are able to survive to adulthood in captivity, researchers hope to eventually reintroduce them into the wild, helping the population recover. That’s a big if, however, as they have never been bred in captivity before.
Still, there was nothing to do but try after the consequences of the declining sea star population became evident as their prey, now unchecked, began decimating kelp forests.
“The loss of this important predator has left an explosion of purple urchins unchecked and has contributed to devastated kelp forests along the West Coast, making this ecosystem more vulnerable and less resilient to the stressors it’s already facing,” Norah Eddy, associate director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program, told UW.
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