Scientists grow sea stars to understand mass die-off

Marine scientists at University of Washington’s Friday Harbor lab are breeding and studying endangered sunflower sea stars following a massive die-off over the past decade. Olivia Chan reports.


These creatures are called the sunflower sea stars.

Marine scientists at University of Washington’s Friday Harbor lab are breeding and studying them

following a massive die-off.

“We are now running the world’s only captive breeding program for the world’s only endangered sea star.”

Sunflower sea stars were once plentiful along the Pacific coastline.

But they’ve been decimated over the past decade.

Approximately 90% of them have disappeared since 2013 due to a mysterious sea star wasting syndrome.

Scientists say the cause could be climate change and the warming ocean temperatures.

“There’s some indication that disease might have been related to some warmer waters around that time.”

Jason Hodin is the Friday Harbor Marine Lab Senior Research Scientist.

“The warm water blob, it was called by oceanographers, and it was an unusual event of warm water throughout the Northeast Pacific, in our region. And that was coincidental with the onset of this disease, which we don’t understand.”

The Friday Harbor lab is located on the San Juan Island.

It currently plays host to more than 140 sunflower sea stars and approximately 5,000 larvae sunflower sea stars that have been bred in captivity.

“You’re looking at a sea star. We don’t know if it’s feeling good or not that day. And one of the ways you can kind of tell potentially, is to see how quickly it rights itself, because they’re vulnerable when they’re upside down…if they’re in bad condition, if they’re sick or if they’re in environmental conditions that are that are making their performance compromised, like very, very warm temperatures potentially, then they might, with the adults, it’s seen that it slows down their ability to be able to right themselves.”

University of Washington neuroscience graduate student William Weertman is tasked with working with the baby sea stars and studying their behavior.

“To have an animal where you can do something, and have them do the behavior in response is amazing.”

“It’s a very fascinating, because like they flip, it looks like there’s this point when they expand out their podia, I don’t know if you noticed that when they flipped over. But it’s like all their little tube feet were kind of going like this, right? So it’s like they flip, the start of the flip is like the sensing phase, and there’s a decision part, and they start to roll. So there’s steps to the flip.”

The team hopes to someday release the sea stars into the wild.

Studies in the lab so far have provided some encouraging findings.

Sunflower sea stars may be able to endure 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.”