From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published August 24, 2012 10:02 AM

Invasive brittle star could change appearance and ecology of Atlantic coral reefs

For millions of years, sea stars have been among the most recognized oceanic organisms. People around the world have recognized their beauty and importance since ancient times. Finding one washed up on the shore or during a snorkeling expedition is even more exciting and chances are we will be seeing one species, the yellow brittle sea star, Ophiothela mirabilis, more often as it has made it's way to the Atlantic Ocean.

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However, this colorful, six-armed species of sea star is not be welcomed to these waters. In a study published in Coral Reefs, the Journal of the International Society for Reef Studies, Ophiothela mirabilis, which was once restricted to Pacific waters, has been found at Brazilian and Caribbean ports in the Atlantic Ocean. Not only is this species non-native to the Atlantic Ocean, but it is considered invasive because of its ability to reproduce asexually. The ophiothela brittle star clings in multitudes to corals and sponges splits in two, regenerating severed body structures. The ability of one star to "clone" vast numbers of identical twins enormously increases the species capacity to multiply and disperse.

Invasive species have a massive impact on our economy and our environment, causing over 100 billion dollars of damage in the U.S. alone, every year. The costs associated with invasive marine species can include interference with fisheries, damage to infrastructure, and competition with native species causing loss of biodiversity.

Co-written by Dr. Gordon Hendler of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM), the study explains that the impact of the ophiothela brittle star remains to be seen. Little is known about the biology of marine invertebrates (except for commercially important species) so it is difficult to foresee how it will affect the ecology of its new habitat.

However, further expansion of the range of Ophiothela could change the appearance and the ecology of Atlantic coral reef communities because ophiothelas, in multitudes, densely colonize gorgonians and sponges on Indo-West central Pacific and on tropical eastern Pacific reefs.

Read more at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

O. mirabilis on Sea Fan image via Alvaro Migotto. Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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