Effects of sea urchin disease on coastal marine ecosystems

Colette J. Feehan, Robert E. Scheibling

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Outbreaks of disease in herbivorous sea urchins have led to ecosystem phase shifts from urchin barrens to kelp beds (forests) on temperate rocky reefs, and from coral to macroalgal-dominated reefs in the tropics. We analyzed temporal patterns in epizootics that cause mass mortality of sea urchins, and consequent phase shifts, based on published records over a 42-year period (1970-2012). We found no evidence for a general increase in disease outbreaks among seven species of ecologically important and intensively studied sea urchins. Periodic waves of recurrent amoebic disease of Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis in Nova Scotia coincide with periods when the system was in a barrens state and appear to have increased in frequency. In contrast, following a major epizootic that decimated Diadema antillarum throughout the Caribbean in 1983, subsequent outbreaks of disease were highly localized and none have been reported since 1991. Epizootics of Strongylocentrotus in the NW Atlantic and NE Pacific, and Paracentrotus and Diadema in the eastern Atlantic, have been linked to climate change and overfishing of sea urchin predators. The spatial extent of recurrent disease outbreaks in these species, and the frequency of phase shifts associated with these epizootics, has decreased over time due to the expansion of the macroalgal state and its stabilization through positive feedback mechanisms. Longitudinal studies to monitor disease outbreaks in sea urchin populations and improved techniques to identify causative agents are needed to assess changes in the frequency and extent of epizootics, which can profoundly affect the structure and functioning of coastal marine ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1467-1485
Number of pages19
JournalMarine Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 2014


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