Scientists at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor laboratory in the United States are breeding and studying sunflower sea stars in captivity after a dramatic decline over the past decade.
Sunflower sea stars were once in abundance along the Pacific coastline from Mexico’s Baja Californi to Alaska, but around 90% of them have disappeared since 2013 due to sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS).
SSWS is a condition that affects sea stars, also known as starfish. It is a disease that causes sea stars to become weak, lose their limbs, and disintegrate, eventually leading to death. Warming ocean temperatures and climate change might have caused the disease.
The laboratory is located on San Juan Island, and 109 one-year-olds, 23 two-year-olds, 12 three-year-olds, and approximately 5,000 larvae sunflower sea stars live in captivity at the facility. These animals were bred at the laboratory, but scientists have also taken sixteen adult sunflower sea stars from the wild into their lab.
“We are now running the world’s only captive breeding program for the world’s only endangered sea star, which is the sunflower (sea) star,” said Jason Hodin, senior research scientist at Friday Harbor Marine Lab, who has been at the forefront of the program since its start in 2019.
“It (sunflower sea star) is one of the largest sea stars in the world. It’s one of the fastest sea stars in the world. Like when you think of sea stars sitting there attached to a rock and not doing much, like these are very, very mobile and very active,” Hodin said.
So far, studies with younger sea stars in the lab have provided some promising findings. The sunflower sea star may be able to survive in warmer waters. “So that’s a good thing. You know, if sunflower stars are going to recover in the wild with or without human assistance, they’re going to be doing so in a change in climate,” said Hodin.
He added that the animals might be released one day, but that wouldn’t be any time soon: “A lot of people, when they think about our captive breeding program, they think of it in terms of raising stars for release into the wild, which is certainly something that we have our eyes on. It’s like the prize that we have our eyes on as a long-term goal.”