While something terrible is happening in parts of the Pacific Ocean, destroying its ecosystem and putting whole species at risk. But there's a group of researchers working hard to bring about hope and solve the urgent issue. Here's the important reason why some scientists are breeding sea stars.
Ever heard of sunflower sea stars? These magical beauties are the second largest kind of sea star species and can be up to three feet wide and a whopping thirteen pounds. But their most vital characteristic? These creatures are predators who eat mostly urchins and bivalves. Sadly, the underwater sunflowers have massively declined in population due to a yet-to-be-understood disease.
"It's literally equivalent to if there was a disease that struck every mammal on the West Coast," explained Jason Hodin, a senior science researcher at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories. "That would be the biggest scientific story of all time, yet this crisis is happening with sea stars, and people just kind of accept this. But to a sea star biologist... this just doesn't happen. It's unprecedented." So Hodin and a group of passionate researchers decided to do something about it.
The scientists were able to secure thirty grown sunflower sea stars from the San Juan Islands and bring them into the lab to procreate. Since not much was previously known about the animals, the researchers have been hard at work reproducing them while simultaneously learning about them. What do we know now? For one, the bigger stars eat the smaller ones, so Hodin and co. have started to separate the creatures by size to avoid that.
The project's goal is to create a sturdy amount of adult sunflower stars that could repopulate the waters and bring the ecosystems back to a healthy place. And, in case there was any doubt, doing so is crucial for human health, too. Kelp forests, which are disappearing due to the sea stars' absence, are crucial in battling climate change because they are more efficient at getting rid of harmful gasses than land forests.
And so far, we've got our hopes high for Hodin's progress. The team recently observed tiny sunflower stars previously put into natural saltwater in Washington's Salish Sea and found hopeful news: the lab-grown creatures are still alive. "Amazingly, they're doing pretty well," shared Hodin. "This is the first pass of whether or not sea stars born in the lab can actually survive in the wild."