Parasite may lead to ‘pandemic’ for sea urchins, according to new USF research

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Sea Urchin research at USF College of Marine Science, Bella Ritchie // Courtesy of the University of South Florida

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Researchers at the University of South Florida have discovered a marine parasite attacking sea urchins has spread to a new species and region. They’re concerned it’s becoming a pandemic for sea urchins.

A parasite that devastated sea urchins in the Caribbean and Florida in 2022 has caused another die-off more than 7,000 miles away in the Sea of Oman, according to University of South Florida researchers.

Mya Brietbart is a USF Distinguished University Professor and co-author of the study.

“When we heard about the die-off, we were extremely concerned because in the 1980s, there was a die-off of the same species of urchin throughout the Caribbean, and that really led to degradation of the coral reefs”

In the new study, USF reports that a single-celled organism, identified last year as the cause of a mass mortality event in one urchin species, is the same parasite currently afflicting the urchin in the Sea of Oman, near the Arabian Sea.

Breitbart says urchins play a key role in protecting coral reefs.

“They’re really important for kind of maintaining the balance between corals and algae on the reefs, and so, when we start to lose them, essentially that’s another strike against corals that are trying to eek out a living under harsh conditions.”

Isabella Ritchie is a PhD student at USF and lead author of the study. She says there is still more research to be done.

“We’re still kind of looking into why it was so severe and how it spreads, how it’s transported, so that’s all future research we’re working on.”

Read about the discovery here.

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