San Diego/ Parks & Nature
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Published on February 26, 2024
California's Birch Aquarium Sparks New Life into Critically Endangered Sunflower Sea Stars with Spawning BreakthroughSource: Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

In a major conservation win for the Sunflower Sea Star, marine biologists at Birch Aquarium in California have successfully spawned and cross-fertilized the gametes of this critically endangered species, birthing a fresh hope for its survival. Birch Aquarium, part of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, collaborated with various conservation partners, including the Aquarium of the Pacific and the California Academy of Sciences, in this extraordinary effort to boost the sea star's dwindling numbers.

Assistant Dive Safety Officer and Aquarist at Birch, Melissa Torres, expressed her team's excitement and pride in the achievement. "The collaboration and support that contributed to achieving this milestone has been huge!" she said, according to Birch Aquarium's news release. This team fertilized eggs using sperm from a single male, which had been fresh, frozen at -80 degrees Celsius, and cryopreserved. Remarkably, all three approaches yielded fertile eggs, demonstrating a potential game-changer for species' preservation.

The fertilized eggs have been shared among participating institutions hoping to raise the stars to maturity. While some eggs stayed at Birch Aquarium, others were transported to the Aquarium of the Pacific and other California-based conservation organizations. These groups plan to nurture the eggs to adulthood, leveraging their unique capabilities.

This collaborative breeding program forms part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE Sunflower Sea Star Program, co-led by the Aquarium of the Pacific and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Their efforts are a key component of the "Roadmap to Recovery," which aims to rejuvenate the Sunflower Sea Stars' populations along the West Coast.

The urgency of these conservation efforts is underscored by the devastating impact of sea star wasting disease, which has caused the deaths of more than five billion Sunflower Stars in the past decade. For more information, you can read the full report on the Birch Aquarium website.