~summer shorts~ star ecology

A disease outbreak erased sea stars almost completely from the tidepools of our coasts in 2013. I see them in greater numbers than I have in years, but still with telltale symptoms of the devastation they’ve suffered.

Sea star wasting disease is still poorly understood, and having worked in disease ecology professionally, I know this is not for lack of attempts made to understand. It is a very tricky branch of biology to study. Sea star larvae go through a dispersed pelagic phase where maybe their socially distant selves manage to stay disease free.

sea star larvae illustration by on of my faves, Ernst Haeckel, public domain

As the new recruits settle back into the intertidal, some of them have managed to grow to maturity at least long enough to spawn for themselves, but most are still showing telltale signs of infection with this disease some scientists believe may be caused by a virus. The disease persists, and for now sea stars, too, persist. It will remain to be seen how the population will respond longer term, and what effects their prolonged absence will have on the other organisms in the intertidal community. The invisible, inextricable linkages connecting members of an ecosystem sometimes reveal themselves when the system is under strain.

I have spent a few early morning tidepool rambles on a few different beaches I love, my own very small emergence into the world in a low-covid-risk manner. I make a point to watch for and photo-document sea stars now whenever I am out for one of my beach walks during low tides. For several years I saw almost none, but slowly an increase is becoming perceptible.

I lingered a last few minutes on one beach, and a hermit crab captured my attention, tucked into a former snail’s abode frosted with pink icing bryozoans. I watched and watched, and it slowly, slowly, emerged. Our return to the world feels comparably slow. I think we will be hermits for longer than is comfortable, and face choices about how we minimize our in-person interactions with the general public so we can reimagine the in-person interactions we don’t want to continue to have to live without. Not the triumphant takeover of the world as we knew it, but a halting, complicated return, much like the quiet, incremental return of the sea stars.

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