Colorful, 24-legged predators could save west coast marine ecosystems

A giant sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) walks over the reef underwater in Point Dume State Beach, California.Brent Durand/Getty Images

  • Kelp forests, one of the most diverse marine ecosystems, are dying along the west coast of North America.

  • A new study says recovering sunflower starfish populations could save forests.

  • The starfish are voracious predators that feed on sea urchins and help keep the ecosystem in balance.

Kelp forests are dying along much of the west coast of North America, but scientists believe the return of a once-abundant predator to underwater ocean ecosystems could save them.

Populations of sunflower starfish, or Pycnopodia helianthoides, have been collapsing rapidly since 2013, in part due to a disease called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, which may have been made worse by warming ocean temperatures.

When the starfish disappeared, some of his prey blossomed. Populations of kelp-feeding sea urchins have since exploded, and underwater forests have been decimated in turn. The authors of a new article suggest the loss of sunflower starfish is to blame.

The study, published in the Royal Society last month, says restoring starfish populations, either through natural means or through human-facilitated reintroduction, could control sea urchin populations and restore kelp forests.

Kelp forests support a greater diversity of plants and animals than almost any other ecosystem in the ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Animals that rely on the dense vegetation for protection from predators or storms include seals and sea lions, whales, otters and birds, among others.

Meet the sunflower starfish that scientists say could save them.

Sunflower starfish are among the largest sea stars in the world and can reach 3 feet in diameter.

A sunflower star, British Columbia's largest starfish, photographed while diving around the southern Gulf Islands.

A sunflower star, British Columbia’s largest starfish, photographed while diving around the southern Gulf Islands.naturediver/Getty Images

Although commonly referred to as starfish, the term is technically incorrect as they are not actually fish.

Sunflower Starfish in Alaska.

Sunflower Starfish in Alaska.Jennifer Idol/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

They are voracious predators that feed on sea urchins, clams, snails, sea cucumbers and other starfish.

These starfish eat sea urchins, clams, snails, abalone, sea cucumbers and other starfish.  This guy was about 16 inches wide.  Sunflower Starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides).  Brown's Bay, Edmonds, WA.

Sunflower Starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides), Browns Bay, Edmonds, WA.Neil Gilham/Getty Images

Adults can have anywhere from 16 to 24 limbs that they use to move and grab their prey.

A sunflower starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides), the world's largest starfish with 16 to 24 limbs, is produced by tidal pools in Halleck Harbor in Saginaw Bay on Kuiu Island.  The starfish's underside is equipped with tubular feet that allow it to move when quickly chasing prey.

The tide pool in Halleck Harbor in Saginaw Bay on Kuiu Island yields a sunflower starfish.RONSAN4D/Getty Images

Sunflower starfish can move at high speeds — as far as starfish go — traveling about 3.3 feet per minute.

A sunflower star crawling through seaweed on the Washington coast.

A sunflower star crawling through seaweed on the Washington coast.Randimal/Getty Images

They have a unique skeleton that allows them to open their mouths wide enough on their underside to swallow their prey.

Pycnopodia helianthoides, commonly known as the sunflower starfish, is a large starfish found in the Northeast Pacific.  Kodiak, Alaska.  Tube feet and bottom.

Sunflower Starfish, Kodiak, Alaska.Gerald Corsi/Getty Images

Sunflower starfish have 15,000 tube feet on their limbs that can regrow if lost.

TUBE FEET uses PROMOTION and PREDATION in a SEA STARS (Star Fish).  This image shows: TUBULAR FEET, PEDICELLARIAE (pincers), SPINES, and DERMAL GILLS on the underside of a Sea Star arm.  Sunflower Starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides).  This starfish is a fast, voracious predator that can prey on clams (clams and mussels) and other marine organisms.  Starfish are echinoderms (prickly skinned animals) that have a water vascular system.  Oregon coast

The sunflower starfish’s tubular feet are used for locomotion and hunting.Ed Reschke/Getty Images

Their soft and spongy skin comes in a variety of colors including pink, orange, purple, green, and brown.

Sunflower Sea Star Starfish on the southeast Alaskan beach at low tide.

Sunflower Sea Star Starfish on the southeast Alaskan beach at low tide.mscornelius/Getty Images

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