By Val Arias
Having such easy access to the biodiverse ecosystem that is the Puget Sound allows Evergreen programs the ability to spot and research emerging epidemics that struck the area, especially the marine life that inhabits the many beaches, tide pools and inlets of Washington. Recently, a program at Evergreen took advantage of all that our local nviroment has to offer and stumbled upon a lucky find: a sun flower sea star, increasingly rare thanks to a recent epidemic of sea star wasting disease.
The Evergreen program Marine Biodiversity recently went on a four day-long field trip through the Olympic Peninsula, and went to various tide pool sites for their fieldwork along the Washington coast, including Clallam Bay, Neah Bay, and Cape Flattery. The last site they visited was Tongue Point, which is located right outside of Port Angeles, right across the sound from the Canadian island Victoria. While searching the vast tide pools for various marine organisms they’ve been studying, students in the program were able to spot a juvenile Pycnopodia helianthoideshas in one of the pools, which was a very rare sight and a huge reassurance that there is still hope of survival for this species of sea star, which is more commonly known as the sunflower star. The students were able to gently pick up the star and photograph it, before immediately putting it back in its home, where it very quickly scurried away in the pool. The star was a mix of orange, red and light brown colors, with seventeen legs, healthy tube feet, and no sign of a new epidemic called sea star wasting disease. It was about 11.5 cm in diameter, and as mentioned, quite young (they grow to be one meter long, with 16-24 arms), and thankfully very healthy and active.
Since 2013, sea stars in the Puget Sound have been struck by a recent disease (sea star wasting disease, or SSWD), which has affected in not only 20+ species of sea stars, but entire marine communities as a whole. SSWD essentially melts and deteriorates sea stars’ bodies, unabling them to grow back their legs and tube feet — sea stars and other echinoderms are able to regrow their limbs when wounded — and wiping out many keystone species to near extinction. The sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoideshas, been rarely sighted the past three to four years as a result of this, and though they can thrive in the benthos environment and has been spotted by deep sea divers, it has not been spotted in tidepools where it used to thrive, from northern Washington to the San Juan Islands. Marine communities have been affected by the absence of this keystone predator as they maintain the food chain balanced by eating various sorts of molluscs (California mussels, Mytilus californianus, and various species of chitons).
On their field trip, the program also was able to spot and photograph a giant pacific octopus, which was camouflaged in a bed of kelp, and many other species of marine invertebrates, some of which they collected and are now keeping in the Lab I aquarium for their research and further marine biology instruction. The sea stars, especially those endangered, were not collected and will hopefully rebuild their numbers in the years to come.