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Sunflower Stars Now Critically Endangered

Though sunflower star numbers have plummeted, scientists are holding out hope for these once-common denizens of the Pacific.

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by the Hakai Institute

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This video was produced by the stellar media team at the Hakai Institute.

A decade ago, seeing sunflower stars on a dive off the Pacific coast of North America was nothing to write home about. The stars, which grow up to a meter in diameter, were omnipresent. Then came the sea star epidemic.

In 2013, sea stars impacted by a wasting syndrome began dissolving into gelatinous goop. Sunflower stars proved to be an especially vulnerable species. In seven years, an estimated 5.75 billion sunflower stars perished from Mexico to Alaska—a population decline of over 90 percent.

The decline was so precipitous that sunflower stars have now been officially listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—a notion that was once unfathomable for such a common species. After the die-off, scientists began to realize just how important sunflower stars are for maintaining a resilient coastal ecosystem. They are major predators of sea urchins, which decimate kelp if not kept in check.

While 90 percent may be gone, 10 percent remains. Small populations, especially in the northern parts of their range, are still hanging on. And scientists led by the Nature Conservancy are being proactive, experimenting with breeding sunflower stars in captivity. Though that work is still in its early stages, captive-reared stars could act as a safeguard against further declines. Sunflower stars may be critically endangered, but hope is not lost.

Edited and produced by Katrina Pyne
Produced by Josh Silberg
Videography by Grant Callegari
Map graphics by Mark Garrison
Sea star graphics by Josh Silberg

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