SAN DIEGO — Three Sunflower Sea Stars that are about the size of a pizza were successfully spawned at Birch Aquarium last week.

This monumental effort was made possible through a collaborative effort between Aquarium of the Pacific, Steinhart Aquarium at California Academy of Sciences, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and the Sunflower Star Laboratory.

“Sunflower Stars are considered functionally extinct in our own state of California,” said Melissa Torres, assistant dive safety officer and aquarist at Birch Aquarium. “This species is also considered to be functionally extinct in Oregon. Our collective goal is to save them from extinction.”

This marks the second time the aquarium has induced spawning on a Sunflower Star, furthering conservation efforts to help accelerate the recovery of this species along the West Coast.

“It’s incredible to see the huge collaboration that has taken place over the past two years to bring awareness to the plight of the sunflower sea star,” said Jenifer Burney, Aquarium of the Pacific senior aquarist and co-chair of the AZA SAFE Sunflower Sea Star Program. “There is a massive team of scientists and educators working to try to save this species in the wild, and seeing how far we’ve come in such a short time gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

According to officials with Birch Aquarium, a mysterious “Sea Star Wasting Disease” has caused a mass die-off of these sea creatures for the past decade. The reason it’s important to save these sea stars from extinction is because they play an essential role in the overall health of kelp forests.

To explain that further, they keep sea urchin populations in check. Birch Aquarium explained that this helps in safeguarding kelp forests from the adverse effects of overgrazing by sea urchins.

In the wild, sea stars broadcast spawn. This means the males and females freely release sperm and eggs into the ocean, where they mix and hopefully fertilize, said Birch Aquarium.

Researchers say this strategy relies more on chance encounters for fertilization, rather than direct mating. At Birch Aquarium, however, spawning is not necessarily left up to chance.

  • carefully administer a spawn-inducing hormone into a Sunflower Star
  • A Sunflower Sea Star is carefully administered a spawn-inducing hormone
  • Genetic material from three separate Sunflower Sea Stars

“Birch Aquarium can help this recovery effort by providing genetic diversity, exemplary animal care techniques and groundbreaking new protocols,” said Torres.

The aquarium is home to five Sunflower Stars, one of the largest aquarium populations in California.