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.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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Twenty-five years ago, a food called Tofurky made its debut on grocery store shelves. Since then, the tofu-based roast has become a beloved part of many vegetarians' holiday feasts.
By Jessica Corbett
A leading environmental advocacy group marked Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday by urging President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Kamala Harris, and the entire incoming administration "to honor Indigenous sovereignty and immediately halt the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines."
- Climate Crisis: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Traditions ... ›
- 10 Organizations Honoring Native People on Thanksgiving ... ›
- Biden Vows to Ax Keystone XL if Elected - EcoWatch ›
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.