Ochre stars are a keystone species, meaning they are on top of the nearshore tidepool food chain, and their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem. Ochre stars may be orange, purple or brown, but they’re the same species, and appear to vary in color geographically or possible because of what they eat. And they eat a lot – possibly up to 80 mussels a year. They also feed on chitons, limpets, snails and barnacles, and like the lack of wolves in the Olympics that have allowed elk numbers there to explode, without these predators, shellfish such as mussels quickly take over and depress other species that create a vibrant ecosystem. But starfish are now sick, and appear to be getting sicker!
Starfish wasting has happened before, but never with such widespread and dramatic consequences, and so far we don’t have any idea what’s causing it. An infectious pathogen, warmer water, we just don’t yet know. Stars become soft, mushy and arms fall off, finally becoming a big pile of dead goo. And it’s affecting other species besides ochre stars. Mottled stars, blood stars, giant pink stars, vermilion and rainbow stars are also being wasted . Researchers are looking for help to document what’s going on, and you can help. If you find sea stars affected by wasting, eeb.ucsc.edu/pacificrockyintertidal has forms to fill and maps pinpointing where this is happening. Here’s a chance to help produce real baseline science.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.