Why Are Starfish Melting?
By Jason Bittel
Starfish are losing arms, developing white lesions and disintegrating into piles of goo. Last summer, divers and scientists began reporting the fatal “melting” events up and down North America’s coasts—from British Columbia to southern California in the Pacific, and from New Jersey to Maine in the Atlantic. Though nobody knows what’s causing these die-offs, the plague does have a name: Seastar Wasting Syndrome.
Outside of beach art, most people don’t think about starfish too often. These echinoderms don’t make for good eating, cuddly pets or cute YouTube videos. But I’m here to tell you that when it comes to tidal ecosystems, losing sea stars is a big deal.
You’ve heard of keystone species, right? The term refers to particular organisms that keep the relationships between the ecosystem’s other plants and animals functioning properly. Without them, ecosystems collapse—like an arch would without its center block. Well, as it so happens, when ecologist Robert T. Paine first coined the term back in 1969, he got the idea by messing around with a bunch of starfish.
Paine crawled along the tidal plains of Washington’s Tatoosh Island, pulling up all the ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) he could find and tossing them out into the ocean beyond his study area. He played this game of starfish Frisbee for three years, and discovered that without the seastars, his study area became so thick with mussels that little else could survive.
Ochres, mow down mussel beds like it’s closing time at Old Country Buffet. What was once a rich community of 28 species of animals and algae along Tatoosh Island, Paine turned into a mussel monoculture. And today, more of this mussel dominance could be on its way, since ochres are one of the 15 starfish species currently turning into mush.
Most of the approximately 1,900 starfish species that exist today are fearsome hunters. Sure, describing a slow-moving echinoderm with words typically reserved for sharks, tigers and komodo dragons seems a little odd. Then again, none of those killers can pry open prey and absorb its guts like an alien vacuum.
“Very few things eat sea stars,” says Pete Raimondi from U.C. Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab, who helped set up a website for tracking incidences of wasting syndrome. “Many of the species we’re talking about are really top predators on the food chain.”
Another one of these predators coming down with the syndrome is the sunflower seastar (Pycnopodia)—a massive roving armada of arms. This enormous echinoderm can grow up to three feet in diameter and wield as many as 25 limbs. FYI: if you’re a snail or abalone who values its life, you better become familiar with a sunflower seastar’s signature scent.
“Pycnopodia emits such a distinctive odor in the water that animals literally move themselves out of the way to avoid it,” explains evolutionary biologist and taxonomist Christopher Mah. Clams, urchins, brittle stars and sand dollars all “move heaven and Earth” to avoid being destroyed by the sunflower’s Shiva-like arms. Some things you just have to see to believe:
Mah was among the first experts to start piecing together reports of starfish devastation. (His website, The Echinoblog, is easily the most entertaining assortment of echinoderm facts I’ve ever come across.) Mah worries that if the sunflower starfish succumbs to the wasting syndrome in large numbers, its absence will affect the entire food web.
“The thing that I kind of dread is that we’re seeing something that could be important but we’re not paying attention to it,” he says. As with Paine’s experiment, years could pass before scientists notice the consequences, but instead of mussel monocultures, Mah suspects a sunflower die-off would result in vast swaths of seafloor devoid of life. The wastelands he is referring to are known as “urchin barrens.”
Sunflower sea stars keeps sea urchin numbers in check, and without these starfish, urchins gnaw kelp plants from top to bottom. If too many of the spiny urchins gather at the base of a kelp stalk, they can chew right through the holdfast (or root), setting the whole plant adrift. The result is similar to clear-cutting a forest. The life forms that live among the canopy—fish, crabs, otters—disappear as well.
Raimondi and his colleagues are hoping to avoid such devastation through a wasting syndrome website and an interactive map where divers and scientists can submit data for review. He’s also working with a biological oceanographer from Cornell University named Ian Hewson to see if the die-offs in disparate places are related, and what might be triggering them. But it won’t be easy.
“When you look at viruses that infect bats, cows, or dogs, there’s been a history of people looking at them through the ages,” Hewson explains. “But with echinoderms, we know virtually nothing about what’s naturally living in them, let alone anything that could be causing the disease.”
To find more answers, Hewson and his team must first identify all the microbes living inside sea stars and then work backwards to figure out which of them might be causing the echinoderms to melt. The team already has some preliminary data and a flurry of new experiments taking place in the coming weeks. Hewson doesn’t want to name a villain until his tests are complete, but he said it may be that multiple viruses are to blame. “It’s just nobody’s actually looked,” he says.
If nothing else, the crisis is a reminder to all of us that even lowly, slow-mo sea creatures can have a big influence on the world around them. It’s time we give these keystone species a little more respect for being the lions and tigers of their domain—or perhaps a better comparison would be the wolf. The “sea star wolf” (a.k.a. the morning sun star) earned its nickname for how it hunts down other seastars. Even the massive sunflower would rather detach one of its own arms than tango with this star slayer.
And you thought starfish were boring.
This article was originally posted in Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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