A diver holds a sunflower sea star in waters off the Oregon Coast near Port Orford before the invasion of purple sea urchins.

Sea stars could play a key role in protecting threatened kelp forests, according to new research from University of Oregon and Oregon State University scientists.

The study, published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found sunflower sea stars consume kelp-eating urchins at rates sufficient enough to maintain and potentially reset the health of kelp forests.

“What we saw suggests a clear link between the crash of sea stars, the explosion in sea urchin populations and the decline in kelp,” said Sarah Gravem, a research associate in Oregon State’s College of Science. “It also points to sea star recovery as a potential key tool for kelp forest recovery.”

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