Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego successfully spawned three Sunflower Sea Stars in partnership with the Aquarium of the Pacific, Steinhart Aquarium at California Academy of Sciences, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) and the Sunflower Star Laboratory, a monumental milestone in the recovery of these larger-than-life stars. This is the second time the aquarium has induced spawning on a Sunflower Star.
“Sunflower Stars are considered functionally extinct in our own state of California,” said Melissa Torres, Assistant Dive Safety Officer and Aquarist at Birch Aquarium. This species is also considered to be functionally extinct in Oregon. “Our collective goal is to save them from extinction,” continued Torres.
The aquarium is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) Sunflower Sea Star program alongside several zoos, aquariums and professionals from many backgrounds to help reestablish populations of Sunflower Stars on the West Coast. This conservation work is also part of a comprehensive multi-faceted, multi-partner “Roadmap to Recovery” to help accelerate the recovery of this species along the West Coast.
“It’s incredible to see the huge collaboration that has taken place over the past two years to bring awareness to the plight of the sunflower sea star,” said Jenifer Burney, Aquarium of the Pacific senior aquarist and co-chair of the AZA SAFE Sunflower Sea Star Program. “There is a massive team of scientists and educators working to try to save this species in the wild, and seeing how far we’ve come in such a short time gives me a lot of hope for the future.”
For nearly a decade, a mysterious Sea Star Wasting Disease has swept across the West Coast, causing a mass die-off of sea stars particularly in warming waters. It hit Sunflower Sea Stars the hardest, nearly driving them to extinction. This is a big deal as these pizza-sized stars play an essential role in the overall health of kelp forests. They keep sea urchin populations in check, safeguarding kelp forests from the adverse effects of overgrazing by sea urchins.
“It's wonderful to have so many AZA partners working together to help create a regional pathway to aid this species recovery,” said Ashley Kidd, conservation aquaculture project manager at Sunflower Star Laboratory.
In the wild, sea stars broadcast spawn, meaning the males and females freely release sperm and eggs into the ocean, where they mix and hopefully fertilize. This strategy relies more on chance encounters for fertilization, rather than direct mating. However, at Birch Aquarium, spawning is not necessarily left up to chance.
“Birch Aquarium can help this recovery effort by providing genetic diversity, exemplary animal care techniques and groundbreaking new protocols,” said Torres. The aquarium is home to five Sunflower Stars, one of the largest aquarium populations in California.
About Birch Aquarium at Scripps