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A parasitic disease is killing off sea urchins in the Caribbean and the sea of Oman

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A disease is killing sea urchins in the Caribbean. There's evidence to suggest it could be turning into a pandemic for these marine invertebrates. That, in turn, would impact already ailing coral reefs. As Jessica Meszaros with member station WUSF reports, a parasite is behind the die-offs.

JESSICA MESZAROS, BYLINE: Isabella Ritchie is a Ph.D. student studying sea urchins at the University of South Florida. The spiky sea creatures are important, she says, because they eat the algae that competes with corals for light and space.

ISABELLA RITCHIE: When urchins are removed, there tends to be a really big overgrowth of algae, which obviously has negative impacts on coral reefs, which are already struggling.

MESZAROS: Struggling with pollution along with warming ocean waters. Now a single-celled organism called a ciliate is killing sea urchins. It causes them to lose their spines and also lose control of their tube feet, which they use to walk. In 2022, the parasite nearly wiped out long-spined sea urchins in several areas between Florida and the Caribbean. Then last year, Ritchie says...

RITCHIE: We got reports from some collaborators in Oman that they were seeing a massive die-off of these species that is native there.

MESZAROS: She says the same parasite was killing sea urchins 7,000 miles away in the Sea of Oman. She published her findings in a peer-reviewed study, and she says she worries the parasite could continue to spread.

RITCHIE: So I think it's really going to be a team effort between different entities across the globe to get an idea of where it's spreading, how and to whom.

MESZAROS: Such a spread could be called a pandemic, says Philip Gravinese. He specializes in environmental stressors for marine life. He wasn't part of the study but read it and weighed in.

PHILIP GRAVINESE: It's something that we've been seeing periodically throughout the Caribbean and now in other parts of the world as well, so it's something to definitely be concerned about.

MESZAROS: There was another sea urchin die-off in the '80s, but the cause of that one was never determined. For this latest die-off, there's international cooperation among researchers, and they're trying to figure out how the parasite may have traveled thousands of miles. Scientists are also looking at anti-parasite treatments as a possible solution.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Meszaros in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIALL HORAN SONG, "THIS TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jessica Meszaros
Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.