“What most people don’t know about sea urchins,” said Dr. Andy Stamper, Animal Programs research scientist and clinical veterinarian, “is the important role they play in the health of coral reefs. Look past their spiky exteriors, and these small animals are really a key to supporting threatened corals.”
Sea urchins eat algae that can grow on and around coral reefs. Acting like living lawn mowers, they naturally manage algae levels and keep it from choking out the light and space that corals need to grow.
As part of a three-year project, Disney biologists collect sea urchins from areas with dense populations and then transplant them onto coral reefs with high levels of algae growth. The reefs are located near Castaway Cay, where they can be monitored for progress by crew members on the island.
In addition to sea urchins, the team transplants healthy pieces of coral to threatened areas to boost populations. They are also partnering with a local environmental group in the surrounding Abaco islands to help educate the community about the importance of coral reefs in the Bahamas.
“The educational aspect of our program is equally important,” said Andy. “If successful, the project will make a positive impact, not only on coral reefs but also on the individuals benefiting from having healthy reefs in the area.”
Coral reefs are an important part of underwater ecosystems, providing protection and shelter to many different species of fish. They also help control carbon dioxide levels in ocean water and protect coastlines from strong currents and waves that can erode coastlines. Projects like the one being lead at Castaway Cay are helping researchers learn how to restore fragile reefs and ensure their continued health in the future.