An award-winning photographer captured the somber moment when dozens of colorful starfish began to devour a lifeless sea lion on the California seabed.
Wildlife photographer David Slater captured the haunting photo in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay. The dead sea lion and its compatriots swimming in the background are most likely California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), but it could also be Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), based on the geographical ranges of the two species.
Starfish are all bats (Patiria miniata), scavenging starfish available in a wide range of colors. Bat stars play a key role in recycling the sea lion for energy and nutrients, returning its remains to the marine food web.
The eerie image recently won first place in the “Life Aquatic” category in the California Academy of Sciences’ Big Picture competition.
“I knew this image was special when I first posted it, but words can’t even describe how I feel taking first place in such a prestigious contest,” Slater wrote on Instagram. The image shows that “beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places,” he added.
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It is not known how the sea lion in the image died. It may have died of natural causes or been killed by man-made factors, such as collision with a ship, ingestion of plastic, or entanglement in fishing gear.
However, California sea lion populations are increasing in size dramatically and are listed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Bat stars get their name from the web that grows between their arms, which resembles the wings of a bat. The starfish typically has five arms, but can have as many as nine, and the animals can measure up to 20 centimeters in diameter, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
They have been documented in a range of colors, but are most commonly red, orange, yellow, brown, green, or purple.
Bat stars have light-sensitive “eyespots” at the end of each arm, and olfactory cells at the bottom of their arms allow them to “taste” chemicals left behind by small invertebrates or corpses in the air. ‘water.
When bats find food, they push one of their two stomachs through their mouths and release digestive enzymes to break down their meal before ingesting it, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
These starfish also have tiny symbiotic worms that live in the grooves under the stars’ bodies and feed on the remains 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 actively digesting sea lion pieces.
As scavengers, star bats and their hitchhiking worms play an important role in this ocean ecosystem by recycling nutrients and energy from the top of the food chain down.
“Although this scene seems melancholy, rest assured that the sea lion is giving back to the community she once swam with,” contest organizers wrote on the Big Picture website.
“When the bat stars have been sated, any number of creatures, large and small, [also] to be able to draw energy and shelter from what’s left 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 emerged in Alaska in 2013.
The disease is thought to be caused by bacteria and results in abnormally twisted arms, white lesions, deflation of the arms and body, loss of arms and disintegration of the body, which is almost always fatal, according to the National Park Service.
Bat stars are one of the species known to be at risk from this disease, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
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This article was originally published by Live Science. Read the original article here.