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Massive ecological disaster as keystone starfish species gruesomely die along West Coast

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Starfish are dying along the west coast, from Canada to Southern California, and scientists are struggling to find out why, and if anything can be done to stabilize their collapsing population. Warmer ocean temperatures may be to blame as a bacterial wasting disease spreads.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - As many as 95 percent of tidepool starfish in areas along the West Coast are dead or dying as a mysterious wasting disease eradicates the native starfish. A bacterial infection, which causes the starfish to "essentially melt in front of you" according to UC Santa Cruz biologist, Pete Raimondi.

The disease is known as Starfish Wasting Syndrome or wasting disease.

Victims first develop white patches on their skin, and then within a few days their limbs begin to detatch. Finally, they turn into "white goo" as some researchers have described it.

The culprit appears to be a bacteria that flourishes in warmer water. In Southern California, the putrefying bacteria last flourished in 1983-84 during an El Nino, a period of temporary ocean warming that occurs intermittently in the Pacific.

An El Nino has been predicted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for late 2013, however the experimental nature of their study and the early timing of the outbreak make blaming warming a premature conclusion. 

More likely, the bacteria could be flourishing because the oceans are absorbing more heat, or perhaps because a strain of the bacteria has evolved to flourish in cooler waters.

In fact, some early measurements have shown cooler-than-expected ocean temperatures, which suggests the bacteria may have simply evolved.

Scientists have gone into high alert mode and are working the coasts to determine what is behind the outbreak. Until they report, conclusions with regard to cause are speculative at best.

The disease notably affects the Pisaster starfish, a bright orange to purple species that west coast beachgoers are accustomed to seeing in tide pools. The starfish are favorites with beachcombers who may hold them for a few minutes before returning them to the pools from whence they came.

They are also favorites with biologists who have proclaimed them a keystone species.

If important populations of this starfish collapse, it could lead to an ecological imbalance that will disrupt coastal ecosystems for long periods to come. The starfish enjoy feeding on mussels, which may now grow out of control without natural predators to keep them in check.

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