In comments yesterday, duck-billed placelot pointed me to a truly terrifying story. Basically all the starfish in the northern Pacific are disintegrating.
It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish populations on the West Coast. “If it’s as extensive as it looks like it is, then we’re talking about a loss of millions and millions.”
While starfish—which scientists call sea stars to avoid the misconception that they are actually fish—often recover from the lesions, infections on the West Coast are proving lethal. Populations of starfish monitored by Raimondi have essentially disappeared over a period of months. “They will start losing arms or bits of arms and in the end, they kind of disintegrate … into a gooey mess,” he says. An individual sea star may go from whole to remains in a period of days. Though starfish generally have the ability to grow new arms, in these cases wounds don’t heal and innards become exposed as the animal falls apart.
Nobody really knows what’s going on. Quite possibly it is related to climate change and warming water temperatures, making starfish, like bats and frogs, a whole group of animals that could be driven to extinction within a few decades. Some have speculated it is Fukushima radiation, but that reeks of knee-jerk conspiracy theory. Could be a freak bacteria or virus, and of course such things are always possible, such as the contagious cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils that seems to be wholly unconnected to human behavior.
Either way, given the centrality of starfish to the North Pacific tidal ecosystem, this could be disastrous for a number of species. Not to mention make visiting tide pools pointless.
As I said yesterday, I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily. This news should make everyone start doing shots right now.