What’s Growing On: UF Aims to Restore Sea Urchin Population

Published: Aug. 26, 2022 at 11:55 AM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - There is so much that is unknown about the world’s oceans but scientists at the University of Florida are making some progress in learning how sea urchins are a vital part of the ecosystem.

And not only that, but they’re growing them in labs, by the thousands.

You might not think you’d find sea urchins in the city of Gainesville but at the UF Fisheries & Aquatic Sciences department, they’re being grown in a facility right here on campus.”

They’re known as the ‘lawn mowers of the reefs’ and are being severely threatened by everything from pollution and disease to over-harvesting and global warming.

Long-spined sea urchins have contributed to the preservation of reefs for thousands of years. They consume seaweed, which can severely harm or kill coral. And without coral, reefs can suffer severe consequences, including the inability to support fish.

But in the middle of the 1980s, for still unknown reasons, more than 90% of the urchins that inhabited coral reefs in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean died. It has taken quite a while for the long-spined sea urchin population, scientifically known as diadema antillarum, to rebound on its own.

UF Associate Professor for the Fisheries & Aquatic Sciences department, Joshua Patterson says “It was really a mass mortality event like we haven’t seen on reefs before, throughout the Caribbean. 95% of the population was wiped out.”

The Florida Keys, Bermuda, the Yucatan Peninsula, Aruba, and the Virgin Islands are among the regions that the UF/IFAS restoration ecologist is working to restore more of the urchin to.

For his most recent experiment, Patterson used roughly 200 urchins, which is an incredibly high amount given how challenging it is to raise them, especially from the larvae stage.

Patterson says, “They don’t look anything like sea urchins when they’re larvae, they’re very different looking.”

He and his colleagues demonstrated in the study that feeding dried seaweed to young, cultured, long-spined urchins can help them grow much more quickly and behave more like real urchins. This, when compared to feeding them commercial pellets which are typically fed to fish in marine aquariums.

Now that growing urchins at a faster pace than in previous years is an attainable option, Patterson suggests the end goal is to attempt to raise thousands, release them into the wild, and replenish the reefs so they can consume the seaweed overgrowth.

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