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Invasive Pacific starfish seen in Atlantic

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- An invasive species of brittle star previously restricted to Pacific waters has surprisingly established itself at some places in the Atlantic, scientists say.

The colorful six-armed brittle star clings in multitudes to corals and sponges and reproduces asexually, researchers said, by splitting in two and regenerating severed body structures.

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This ability of one star to "clone" vast numbers of identical twins enormously increases the species' capacity to proliferate and disperse, they said.

The discovery of brittle stars in Brazilian and Caribbean ports indicates the species, Ophiothela mirabilis, could have been spread by shipping, experts said.

The impact of the brittle star in the Atlantic is uncertain, scientists said, since little is known about its biology.

However, further expansion of the range of Ophiothela could alter the appearance and the ecology of Atlantic coral reef habitats.

"I imagine that when my grandchildren learn to scuba dive," study co-author Gordon Hendler of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County says, "Caribbean reefs will look very different than they do today, in part because many corals and sponges may be covered with a network of invasive yellow brittle stars."

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