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The Crucial Role One Species of Sea Urchin Plays in Keeping Reefs Healthy
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Long-spined sea urchins
 
In this exclusive film for DIVE, see how an unusually thriving sea urchin population could hold the answer to a mystery that has puzzled scientists for decades
 

The mysterious loss of one of the key species on the coral reefs of the Caribbean has had devastating consequences. A mass die-off of long-spined sea urchins has left many reefs smothered with algae, choking the life from corals and damaging the reef’s architecture: a critical habitat for many species of marine fishes and invertebrates. Fortunately, one reef off the coast of Honduras represents an exception to this decline and may provide the key to bringing these reefs back to life.

During the 1980s, a mysterious disease almost wiped out these urchins from their entire range. In the decades since this decline, they failed to significantly recover in any reef until a breakthrough discovery in 2010, when one thriving population was recorded on the Banco Capiro reef system in Honduras. Urchin numbers at this location are three orders of magnitude greater than any other part of the Caribbean, and healthy coral cover at this site is likewise significantly higher. It may well be the healthiest reef in the Caribbean.

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Operation Wallacea researchers surveying the reef

In this exclusive film for DIVE, video journalist Katie Garrett documents the researchers from Operation Wallacea, a British conservation group, that quickly moved in to investigate. By comparing the conditions found on Banco Capiro with the ‘typical’ degraded reef systems nearby, the scientists hope to uncover the unique kaleidoscope of conditions that have allowed urchins, and the rest of the ecosystem, to thrive at this site.

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Banco Capiro reef, Honduras

Cutting edge 3D-imaging technology is being pioneered by this project to map the reef structure in detail. After the field recording is completed, this form of underwater videography will allow a marine biologist to literally dive into this Caribbean reef, take accurate measurements, and conduct analyses at any time, and without getting their feet wet. This technological advancement will be a game changer for habitat analysis and can enable researchers to descend deeper to untangle the mechanisms suppressing recovery of this species. The team are hopeful their discoveries will allow them to recreate optimal conditions in other damaged reef systems, restoring not only urchin populations, but also the myriad of other species that rely on healthy coral for their survival.

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