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HomeLifeTsunami in Tiny Form: How a Microscopic Parasite Shook Caribbean Coral Reefs

Tsunami in Tiny Form: How a Microscopic Parasite Shook Caribbean Coral Reefs

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It’s amazing something so little could do such large damage. Over 40 scientists, working on research funded by a National Science Foundation RAPID (rapid response research) grant and other organizations, have discovered that a tiny parasite is behind a titanic die-off of long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum) in the Caribbean Sea. The Diadema deaths were first reported in the U.S. Virgin Islands in January 2022. Two months later, urchin fatalities were found across the Lesser Antilles, Jamaica, and the Mexican Caribbean. By June of the same year, the die-offs were detected in most of the Greater Antilles, Florida, and Curacao. 

Sea Urchins – Who Needs Them?

The problem is that without the herbivore-eating urchins, algae grows unchecked and covers, blocks life-sustaining light and eventually kills corals. The researchers found that the culprit is a microscopic protozoan called Philaster apodigitiformis, an organism known in fish. As of December 2022, it seemed the urchins had stopped dying and new ones were repopulating. However, this April, new reports have come from the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands of urchins dying. The bad news is that scientists don’t know how to treat P. apodigitiformis infections. But they hope that discovering the parasite’s identity may put them one step closer to keeping Diadema sea urchins healthy and the coral reefs they live on.

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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