A swarm of rainbow-colored starfish devours a sea lion corpse on the seabed

This stunning shot of a dead California sea lion covered in colorful bat stars was recently declared the winner of a major wildlife photography award. (Image credit: David Slater)

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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 at the California Academy of Sciences. Big picture contest (opens in a new tab). “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 competition,” Slater wrote on instagram (opens in a new tab). The image shows that “beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places,” he added.

Related: No one knows why decapitated sea lions keep showing up on Vancouver Island

It is not known how the sea lion in the picture 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 actually on the rise and are listed as “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (opens in a new tab).

Bat stars get their name from the web that grows between their arms, which resembles the wings of a bat. Starfish typically have five arms, but can have as many as nine, and the animals grow up to 20 centimeters in diameter, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium (opens in a new tab). 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.

An orange bat off Santa Cruz Island in southern California. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

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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, bats may be threatened 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 believed to be caused by bacteria and results in abnormally twisted arms, white lesions, arm and body deflation. , the loss of an arm and the disintegration of the body, which is almost always fatal, according to the National Park Service (opens in a new tab). Bat stars are one of the species known to be at risk from this disease, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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