Monday, November 18, 2013

Pisaster Disaster! When starfish wasting strikes, there's only one man to call.

Dr. Chris Mah may be the only man in the world who can correctly identify any species of starfish on sight. Growing up in San Francisco on a steady diet of sushi and Japanese monster movies, it was no wonder he was attracted to the weird, slimy invertebrates he plucked from the shores of the Bay. Now based at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, he’s an internationally recognized marine invertebrate expert who’s identified more than 20 new species. He also maintains the Echinoblog, a strangely entertaining site where starfish are posed next to action figures to show their size, feeding mechanisms are likened to wrestling moves and posts have titles like “Giant Green Brittle Stars of Death! When they Attack!

So when a diver in Vancouver, British Columbia first noticed scores of dead and dying sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in late August, he snapped photos and sent them to Mah. Mah knew right off the bat what the trouble was: A classic case of Starfish Wasting Syndrome.

Or was it? Starfish Wasting Syndrome had struck the Pacific Coast before, causing mass die-offs of Southern California sea stars in 1983 and again in 1997. Both were during El NiƱo years, when oceans were slightly warmer, and scientists thought they had the disease pegged. This time, though, there was no sudden warming of the ocean to blame. ...

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