Science & Technology



Sunflower sea stars are critically endangered, but can humans help the species rebound?

Laylan Connelly, The Orange County Register on

Published in Science & Technology News

There are so few sunflower sea stars remaining, researchers don’t think there are enough for them to find each other on their own to reproduce – so the species is getting a helping hand from humans.

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego teamed up with several other labs and scientists to successfully spawn several sunflower sea stars recently, giving hope for the critically endangered species that was nearly wiped out when a sea star wasting syndrome swept the West Coast about a decade ago, killing billions.

“It has been an amazing few years of collaborating and learning that led to this spawning. We have a huge team behind us, both national and international, working toward the conservation of the sunflower sea star,” said Jenifer Burney, Aquarium of the Pacific senior aquarist and co-chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums SAFE – Saving Animals from Extinction – Sunflower Sea Star Program.

“The future of the sunflower sea star,” she said, “just got a little brighter.”

The disease that decimated the population to near extinction from 2013 to 2015 is still a mystery, baffling marine scientists from Baja to British Columbia, but especially off the southern and central California regions. Billions of sea stars turned to globs of goo, melting and dying in the largest known die-off of the species.

A range of starfish species, including ochre, mottled, leather, rainbows, six-armed stars and sunflowers, were impacted. Some species are starting to rebound, with occasional sightings off the coast – but one in particular, the sunflower, has not been showing hope.


“We call them ‘functionally extinct,’” said Burney. “We don’t think there’s enough of them here to find each other to reproduce and rebound. We haven’t seen them in Southern California for years. For whatever reason, it really hit the sunflower stars the hardest.”

The sunflower sea star looks a lot different from the typical five-arm species, she said. They can have two dozen arms and grow so large that their middle part, the disk, can span several feet.

“I think when people see them, they are blown away and don’t realize what they are looking at because they don’t realize they are sea stars,” Burney said.

Their absence is impacting the ocean ecosystem. They diet on sea urchins, but with their populations depleted, the urchins have boomed. That surge in urchins is impacting kelp, which is already experiencing stress from warmer-than-normal waters.


swipe to next page

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus