On the hunt for Sunflower Stars

by Christina Gray for the leader
Posted 9/27/23

Sunflower sea stars are important predators in our ocean ecosystems. Scientists are discovering just how important these Stars are due to their decline. One of those scientists will be visiting Port …

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On the hunt for Sunflower Stars


Sunflower sea stars are important predators in our ocean ecosystems. Scientists are discovering just how important these Stars are due to their decline. One of those scientists will be visiting Port Townsend to present his research and educate the public about these groundbreaking and important findings.

Often in the rhetoric surrounding species decline, we hear the term, “indicator species.” This is an animal we can monitor that will tell us about the health of an ecosystem at large. Sunflower Stars are a linchpin species. Rather than telling us about the health of an ecosystem as a whole, they are the small but mighty link that holds a functioning ecosystem together. One year after Sunflower Stars disappeared from kelp forests in California, the entire ecosystem declined due to a surge in sea urchins ravishing an unsustainable portion of the kelp forest. Without the Sunflower Stars to eat the urchins, a chain reaction of events is causing the near collapse of these out-of-sight, out-of-mind ecosystems. Luckily, the Nature Conservancy of California stepped in to discover ways to intervene. One of those ways is partnering with research labs all the way in Washington, where we still have Sunflower Sea stars to learn about them and hopefully reintroduce them back into all of their previous habitats.

Jason Hodin is one of the scientists on this project.

“I have been doing these studies elsewhere and here at Friday Harbor for the past couple of decades," he says. "Then, 10 years ago, many of my research organisms just started to die. In 2019, I was contacted to attempt raising Sunflower Sea stars in captivity. That was something that had never really been tried before. I mean, there have been attempts at raising a few different kinds of Sea stars, mostly just ad hoc attempts by various people, but there haven't been very many concerted efforts into raising Sea stars through their life cycle. In part, most of the things that we know how to raise, we know a lot about them, or we eat them, or we use some aspect of them. This was an opportunity to not only do something that hadn't been done before, which obviously as a scientist I’m interested in, but also to potentially find out things that could be helpful for, (what turned out to not only be an endangered species), but the most endangered Sea star. This is the first Sea star to officially make the endangered species list.

“So, for the last four years, we've basically been raising Sea stars. We collected them in the wild and have been raising them through various generations and learning all kinds of things throughout their life cycles, what they eat, how they survive and grow, and the behavior and ecology of the various life stages. More recently, we've been investigating whether or not the stars that we raise in our lab could be returned to the wild. We're basically undertaking a program here that is on the one hand designed to try to understand as much as we can about this endangered species and aspects of its life that we knew nothing about on the microscopic stages that people had never studied. The second thing is keeping our eyes on potential restoration. We’re also wondering if it is possible to do this in an operation much bigger than ours. Could you raise the sea stars in the lab in sufficient numbers and in a manner that would be beneficial enough to return the Sea stars to the wild?

And so that's what we do.”

Hodin said the research doesn’t have to start and stop in the highly precise efforts of a lab. It is something anyone can contribute to with just the use of a smartphone.

“For the people who like to go out and look for Sea stars and identify them, there is a website called seastarwasting.org where they can post their observations on either healthy or wasting Sea stars that they see and photograph. Taking a lot of photographs of stars, especially Sunflower Stars (if they actually found them) is helpful to us. The more photographs we have, the better. The more photographs in different contexts, different backgrounds and just making those observations is helping wasting stars. I mean, we don't have enough people out in the field in all these different places including Port Townsend. So, if people are going out there, whether it be diving down to the sea floor, along docks, or walking the beach at night during the winter, they can photograph and help. It’s especially interesting at night because most people don't get out at night time or during low tide. That’s all really helpful.”

Hodin said he is sure these creatures can be of interest outside of their impact on an ecosystem.

Learn more by attending Jason Hodin’s lecture. He will present his findings from studying the Sunflower Sea star at Friday Harbor Labs, “Bringing up baby stars: Captive breeding of the endangered Sunflower Star for research and restoration.” The event is Sunday, Oct. 8. The lecture starts at 3 p.m. in the Fort Warden Chapel. Donations are encouraged, but the event is free.