The Pacific Coast of the United States is just so. damn. beautiful.
It’s studded with tree-covered islands, little hidden coves, and driftwood-strewn beaches. It looks like a postcard. Heck, it looks like where two postcards would go to get married!
And one of the best things about it is the amazing animal life. There are pods of wild orca whales, magnificent sea lions, adorable sea otters, and the king-of-all-that-is-strange giant Pacific octopus. But it’s not just the big animals that are awesome; the Pacific Coast’s little guys are amazing too.
One of its most recognizable, and colorful, denizens is the ochre sea star.
It’s hard to miss their bright purple, pink, and orange bodies — they’re like what happens if you let Lisa Frank design an invertebrate. They’re a common sight in tide pools and intertidal zones.
At least, they were.
Sadly, a mystery virus has been wiping them out for the last few years.
In 2014, “sea star wasting disease” appeared in Oregon. The disease wasn’t unique to ochre sea stars — it affects many different species — but they were hit especially hard. Affected animals get weak and then just sort of … fall apart. Like they were made of wet tissue paper.
(If you want to see the kind-of-gross aftermath, you can follow this link).
Scientists quickly identified the disease as a type of virus, but that didn’t help the sea stars. Since it appeared, it’s proceeded to wipe out about four-fifths of the ochre sea star population. It’s also spread up to Alaska and all the way down to Baja California.
Starfish help keep the coastline’s ecosystem in balance, so losing them could be really bad.
While they might look like blobs of Play-Doh, sea stars are actually the tigers of the tide pool. They eat a ton of mussels; so many, in fact, that when starfish disappear, mussel populations explode to the point of crowding out other species.
This makes starfish what is known as a keystone species.
But there’s some good news! Because although we’ve lost a lot of adult sea stars in recent years, people are finding a TON of baby stars right now.
Scientists from Oregon State University just published a paper announcing their discovery of the recent baby boom.
“The number of juveniles was off the charts — higher than we’d ever seen — as much as 300 times normal,” said lead author Professor Bruce Menge in a press release.
Why so many babies? It didn’t look like there were more born than usual. Instead, Menge believes it was because more babies survived than normal, possibly because fewer adults meant more food for the babies.
There’s still a mystery though. Why did the virus strike now?
The virus has probably been around for a long time. It’s even been found in preserved starfish from as far back as the 1940s. And there have been smaller outbreaks in the past but nothing of this size.
So what’s different now? We’re not sure. Menge doesn’t think it’s from warmer ocean temperatures (which has been hurting other areas, like coral reefs), but there are other possibilities as well.
“Ocean acidification is one possibility, and we’re looking at that now,” said Menge. “Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted.”
Nevertheless, this is a good sign. The Earth can regenerate and heal.
It’s too early to say that these new babies are safe, since the virus could strike again, but it’s an awesome display of nature’s ability to bounce back. Humanity hasn’t always been kind to the ocean — we overfish, we dump trash, we pollute its waters — but the Earth is nothing if not resilient.