Award-winning photo captures the eerie spectacle of starfish swarming to feed

Award-winning photo captures the eerie spectacle of starfish swarming to feed

An award-winning photographer has captured the gloomy moment when dozens of colorful starfish set out to devour a lifeless sea lion on the seabed of California.

Wildlife photographer David Slater took the haunting photo in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay. The dead sea lion and its compatriots swimming in the background are probably California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), but they can also be Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), based on the geographical distribution of the two species.

The starfish are all bat stars (Patiria miniata), cleansing starfish available in a variety of colors. The bat stars play a key role in recycling the sea lion for energy and nutrients and returning its residues to the marine food web.

The eerie image recently won first place in the “Aquatic Life” category at the California Academy of Science’s Great photo competition.

Starfish in different colors on a dead seal bodyThe award-winning photograph. (David Slater)

“I knew this picture was special when I first published it, but words can not even describe how I feel I took first place in such a prestigious competition,” Slater wrote on Instagram. The picture shows that “beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places”, he added.

Related: No one knows why beheaded sea lions keep popping up on Vancouver Island

It is unclear how the sea lion in the picture died. It may have died of natural causes or been killed by anthropogenic factors, such as a vessel, plastic intake or entanglement in fishing gear.

However, California sea lion populations are actually increasing sharply in size and are listed as the “least concern” at International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) red list of endangered species.

Bat stars get their name from the fabric that grows between their arms, resembling the wings of a bat. Starfish usually have five arms but can have as many as nine, and the animals grow to be up to 20 centimeters in diameter, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium.

They have been documented in a number of colors but are usually red, orange, yellow, brown, green or purple.

Bat stars have light-sensing “eye spots” at the end of each arm, and olfactory cells at the base of their arms allow them to “taste” chemicals left by small invertebrates or corpses in the water.

When bat stars find food, they push one of their two stomachs through their mouths and release digestive enzymes to break down their meal before consuming it, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

These starfish also have small, symbiotic worms that live in the grooves on the undersides of the stars’ bodies and feed on debris left behind by their hosts. A single bat star can support up to 20 of these worms, so there may be more than 100 worms in the new image that are busy melting pieces of sea lions.

As scavengers, bat stars and their worms play an important role in this marine ecosystem by recycling nutrients and energy from the top of the food chain back to the bottom.

“While this scene seems melancholy, be sure the sea lion returns to the community it once swam with,” the competition organizers wrote on the Big Picture website.

“Once the bat stars have had their fill, any number of creatures, large and small, will do so. [also] be able to draw energy and protection from what is left for many years to come. “

However, bat stars can be endangered due to climate change. Rising sea temperatures have helped spread a new disease known as sea star wasting syndrome, which first appeared in Alaska in 2013.

The disease is thought to be caused by a bacterium and leads to abnormally twisted arms, white lesions, emptying of arms and body, arm loss and body disintegration, which is almost always fatal, according to National Park Service.

Bat stars are one of the species known to be at risk for this disease, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read original article here.

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