An award-winning photographer has captured the grim moment when dozens of colorful starfish began to devour a lifeless sea lion on the seafloor in California.
Wildlife photographer David Slater captured the eerie photo in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay. The dead sea lion and its compatriots swimming in the background are likely California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), but can also be Steller’s sea lions (eumetopias jubatus), based on the geographic distribution of the two species.
The starfish are all bat stars (miniata patria), collecting starfish that come in a wide range of colors. Bat stars play a key role in recycling the sea lion into energy and nutrients, returning its remains to the marine food web.
The mysterious image recently won first place in the “Aquatic Life” category at the California Academy of Science’s Big Picture Competition.
“I knew this image was special when I posted it, but words can’t even describe how I feel in first place in such a prestigious contest,” Slater wrote on Instagram. The image shows that “beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places,” she added.
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It is unclear how the sea lion in the image died. He may have died of natural causes or by anthropogenic factors, such as a boat collision, ingestion of plastic, or entanglement in fishing gear.
However, California sea lion populations are increasing sharply in size and are listed as “Least Concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Bat stars get their name from the web that grows between their arms, which resembles a bat’s wings. Starfish typically have five arms, but can have as many as nine, and the animals grow up to 20 centimeters in diameter, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
They have been documented in a variety 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 on the underside of their arms allow them to “taste” chemicals left behind by small invertebrates or corpses in the water.
When bat stars 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 small symbiotic worms that live in the grooves on the underside of the stars’ bodies and feed on scraps left behind by their hosts. A single bat star can support up to 20 of these worms, so there could be over 100 worms in the new image that are actively digesting sea lion pieces.
As scavengers, bat stars and their hitchhiking worms play an important role in this ocean ecosystem, recycling nutrients and energy from the top of the food chain back to the bottom.
“While this scene looks melancholy, rest assured the sea lion is giving back to the community it swam with,” wrote competition organizers on the Big Picture website.
“When the bat stars are full, any number of creatures large and small [also] to be able to get energy and shelter from what was left behind for years to come.”
However, bat stars may be threatened due to climate change. Rising ocean temperatures helped spread a new disease known as starfish loss syndrome, which first emerged in Alaska in 2013.
The disease is believed to be caused by a bacterium and leads to abnormally twisted arms, white lesions, deflation of the arms and body, loss of the arm 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 of 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.