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Can the Sunflower Sea Star Be Saved?

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One of the incredibly depressing realities of climate change has been the rapid decline of the sunflower sea star, as well as the ochre sea star, former stars of the Northwest’s tidal pools. They literally melted away with warming waters. Can they be saved? Scientists are trying:

Hodin started the captive breeding program at Friday Harbor because he saw a potential solution in the remaining pycnos that demonstrated resilience against the disease.

“We lost somewhere around 90% of the sunflower stars, which is hundreds of millions of animals,” Hodin said. “As horrible as that is, what that suggests is that the ones that didn’t die probably had a little bit of resistance. And if two of those stars breed, we think that their offspring are likely to be even more fit in response to the disease.”

The goal of the program is to raise multiple generations of stars that are more resistant to wasting. Many of the stars will eventually be released into the wild and begin a gradual process of rebuilding their populations.

Prior to Hodin’s research, no scientist had ever attempted to breed wild-caught sunflower sea stars.

At his lab last February, he upped the ante by attempting to breed what’s known as an F2 generation. For the past three years, his team had been meticulously caring for the first generation, F1, born in the lab from wild-caught parents, and now they were attempting to see if these lab-born stars can successfully breed.

“The F1 is the first offspring that you produce from wild stock,” Curliss said. “The F2 being the first generation produced from that first captive-bred generation means you can fully reproduce the lifecycle in captivity, which is a big deal.”

Going to take a lot. But you gotta try. Plus the sea stars eat the urchins and without the stars, the urchins just take over the whole ecosystem, which causes a bunch of other problems.

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