NEW YORK (AP) — Final 12 months, sea urchins within the Caribbean began getting sick — shedding their spines, dying off and throwing reef ecosystems into chaos. Now, scientists suppose they’ve caught the killer on this marine homicide thriller.
A tiny single-celled parasite is in charge for the huge die-off, researchers reported Wednesday within the journal Science Advances.
“The case is closed,” mentioned research writer Mya Breitbart, a marine microbiologist on the College of South Florida.
These long-spined sea urchins, or Diadema antillarum, are prickly black creatures that disguise out in reefs throughout the Caribbean. They play a key function as “lawnmowers” of the reef, Breitbart mentioned, consuming up the algae that grows on corals.
However in January 2022, these animals began displaying unusual signs — their sharp spines drooping and falling off, their suction-cup ft shedding their grip — earlier than dying off in droves, from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico to Florida.
For marine scientists, it was deja vu: One other die-off swept by way of the area within the Eighties and slashed sea urchin populations by round 98%.
That case was by no means solved. However this time, a world workforce of researchers jumped into motion, taking samples from sick urchins and wholesome ones throughout the Caribbean to search for genetic clues.
They didn’t see indicators of viruses or micro organism, mentioned research writer Ian Hewson, who researches marine ailments at Cornell College. However they did spot traces of tiny single-celled organisms known as ciliates, which solely confirmed up within the sick urchins.
Although most ciliates don’t trigger illness, this sort has been linked with different aquatic outbreaks, making it a chief suspect, Hewson mentioned.
To verify they’d caught the killer, scientists positioned the parasites in tanks with wholesome urchins grown in captivity to see how they’d react. Out of 10 urchins who had been pitted towards the tiny creatures, 60% of them died — after displaying the identical signs researchers had been seeing within the wild.
It is potential that this identical parasite additionally brought about the die-off within the Eighties, however scientists can’t ensure, Breitbart mentioned.
They usually haven’t discovered a solution to deal with the diseased urchins. However they’re hopeful that figuring out the supply of the die-offs will assist preserve the reefs, particularly as soon as they study extra about how the parasites unfold, Breitbart mentioned.
These urchin deaths and different stresses have already remodeled the reefs, added Don Levitan, a marine scientist at Florida State College who was not concerned with the research.
Again earlier than the primary sea urchin die-off, Levitan recalled seeing reefs within the U.S. Virgin Islands blanketed within the spiny creatures. Now, these reefs look a lot completely different — choked by algae, struck by coral illness and wired from rising temperatures.
“Coral reefs within the Caribbean are in bother,” Levitan mentioned. “We’re at a special place than we had been 30, 40 years in the past.”
The Related Press Well being and Science Division receives help from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Instructional Media Group. The AP is solely answerable for all content material.