The unchecked proliferation of sea urchins and the starfish’s role in ecosystem balance

New study shows how an endangered starfish could save kelp forests threatened by the climate crisis

The unchecked proliferation of sea urchins is severely testing the kelp forests that play a crucial role in the biodiversity of the oceans and the planet as a whole. Now, a particular starfish could help rebalance the ecosystem.

Kelp forests: a critical habitat

Kelp forests are, in fact, one of the habitats of many marine animals, such as fish and crustaceans; they also absorb the oceans’ carbon, keeping them healthy. However, in recent years, these forests have been threatened by the uncontrolled and excessive growth of the sea urchin population, accelerated especially by environmental pollution and climate change. Furthermore, human hunting of otters has exacerbated the situation: these animals were precisely the ones that kept the sea urchin population under control, which is now expanding significantly, consuming, and damaging the kelp forests.

A possible saviour: the Oregon sunflower sea star

However, a new study shows that a particular species of starfish could save the fate of the forests.

The Oregon sunflower sea star is indeed another major predator of sea urchins. Unfortunately, it is an endangered species, threatened by a serious disease fueled by rising ocean temperatures and the climate crisis.

Despite this, the results of the study are still encouraging: researchers believe that by preserving the population of starfish, the growth of sea urchins can be controlled, and the kelp forests (a brown alga that reaches a height of over 50 meters) could recover.

Researchers have collected healthy specimens of starfish, subjecting them to feeding experiments with sea urchins. The results show how the starfish are voracious predators.

It is essential, therefore, to preserve the health of the endangered sunflower sea stars: they are able to squeeze into even the narrowest spaces to hunt sea urchins.

Similarly, it is wise to protect the health of sea otters, which instead take care of hunting the larger specimens.

Only in this way, indeed, can the kelp forest recover.

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

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