Award-Winning Photo Captures The Grisly Spectacle of Starfish Swarming to Feed

An eerie scene of dozens of bright starfish attacking a dead sea lion on the Californian bottom was recorded by an award-winning photographer.

The unsettling image was taken in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay by wildlife photographer David Slater. Based on the geographic boundaries of the two species, the dead sea lion and its companions swimming in the backdrop are most likely California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), however they may possibly be Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus).

All of the sea stars are scavenger starfish called bat stars (Patiria miniata), which come in a variety of hues. The sea lion's remnants are returned to the marine food web after being converted into energy and nutrients by the bat stars.

At the California Academy of Science's Big Picture Competition, the unsettling picture recently took top prize in the "Aquatic Life" category.

"I knew this image was special when I first published it but words cannot even describe how I feel taking first place in such a prestigious contest," Slater stated on Instagram. According to him, the picture demonstrates how "beauty and adventure can be found in unexpected places."

The image's sea lion's cause of death is unknown. It can have perished due to natural causes or manmade reasons like a vessel hit, ingesting plastic, or being entangled in fishing gear.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, however, lists California sea lion numbers as "least concern" due to their strong population growth.

The webbing that develops in between their arms and mimics a bat's wings gives bat stars their name. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, starfish may grow up to 8 inches (20 cm) large and have up to nine limbs in addition to their regular five.

Although they have been seen in a variety of hues, red, orange, yellow, brown, green, and purple are the most typical.

Bat stars have olfactory cells on the bottom of their arms that allow them to "taste" compounds left by minute invertebrates or dead bodies in the water. They also have light-sensing "eye-spots" at the ends of each arm.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, when bat stars discover food, they force one of their two stomachs through their lips and release digestive enzymes to break down their meal before ingestion.

Additionally, these starfish have microscopic, symbiotic worms that dwell in the grooves on the bottom of the starfish's bodies and eat the food remnants that their hosts leave behind. There may be more than 100 worms in the new image that are actively consuming sea lion parts because each bat star can support up to 20 of these worms.

By recycling nutrients and energy from the top of the food chain back to the bottom, the bat stars and their hitchhiker worms serve a significant function in this ocean environment as scavengers.

"While this scene appears melancholic, rest assured the sea lion is giving back to the community with which it once swam," the contest's organizers stated on the Big Picture website.

"When the bat stars have had their fill, any number of creatures big and small will [also] be able to derive energy and shelter from what's left behind for years to come."

Climate change, however, could pose a threat to bat stars. The ailment known as sea star wasting syndrome, which first appeared in Alaska in 2013, has expanded due to rising water temperatures.

According to the National Park Service, the illness, which is thought to be brought on by a bacteria, causes strangely twisted arms, white sores, deflation of the arms and body, arm loss, and body disintegration. It is nearly invariably deadly.

According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the species that is known to be susceptible to this illness is bat stars.