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An award-winning photographer captured this bleak moment when dozens of colorful sea stars began devouring a lifeless sea lion on the sea floor in California.
Wildlife photographer David Slater captured this harrowing photo in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay. The dead sea lion and its offspring 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 range of the two species. Sea stars are all bat stars.Patria Miniata), and starfish freckles that come in a wide range of colors. Star bats play a key role in recycling sea lions into energy and nutrients, and returning their remains to the marine food web.
The spooky picture recently won first place in the “Aquatic Life” category at the California Academy of Sciences Big Picture Contest (Opens in a new tab). “I knew this photo was special when I first posted it, but words can’t even describe how I felt about taking first place in such a prestigious competition,” Slater wrote. Instagram (Opens in a new tab). He added that the image shows that “beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places”.
Related: No one knows why headless sea lions keep appearing on Vancouver Island
It is unclear how the sea lion died in the photo. He may have died of natural causes or died from human factors, such as ship collision, ingestion of plastic, or involvement in fishing gear. However, California sea lion numbers are sharply increasing in size and have been listed as ‘Less Concern’ in the United States. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (Opens in a new tab).
Bat stars get their name from the belt that grows between their arms, which resemble the wings of a bat. Starfish usually have five arms but can have up to nine, and the animals grow to be 8 inches (20 cm) long, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Opens in a new tab). They have been documented in a range of colors but the most common are red, orange, yellow, brown, green or purple.
Bat stars have light-sensitive “eye spots” at the end of each arm, and the olfactory cells under their arms enable them to “taste” the chemicals left by small invertebrates or corpses in the water. When bat stars find food, they push one of their stomachs through their mouths and release digestive enzymes to break down their meal before eating it, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
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These stars also contain small symbiotic worms that live in the grooves on the undersides of the stars’ bodies and feed on scraps left 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 photo busy digesting parts of a sea lion.
As scavengers, bat stars and worms play an important role in this ocean ecosystem by recycling nutrients and energy from the top of the food chain to the bottom.
“While this scene looks sad, rest assured that the sea lion is giving back to the community it once swam with,” competition organizers wrote on the Big Picture website. “When the bat stars are full, any number of creatures big and small will do the trick. [also] Be able to draw energy and shelter from what is left behind for years to come.”
However, bat stars may be under threat due to Climate change. Rising ocean temperatures have helped spread a new disease known as starfish wasting syndrome, which first appeared in Alaska in 2013. The disease is believed to be caused by bacteria and leads to abnormal torsion of the arms, white lesions, and contractures of the arms and body. Loss of the arm and disintegration of the body, which are almost always fatal National Park Service (Opens in a new tab). Star bats are a species known to be at risk for this disease, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Originally published on Live Science.
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