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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Starfish are Keystone Killers

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 5, 2013

(Photo: James Pauls/Getty)

(Photo: James Pauls/Getty)

This is the time of year for wandering the beaches and studying what washes up, and starfish often figure prominently in what we find, and in our memories of summer. It’s partly because they are so strangely symmetrical—often with their hundreds of small, tube-like legs still wriggling underneath. And it’s also because they seem so vulnerable caught out in the sun, even though in their own world, beneath the waves, they are in fact great predators.

But you will probably not be seeing any starfish this summer on the U.S. East Coast. Some unknown killer has devastated populations from New Jersey to Maine. Caitlin del Sesto, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, was one of the first to notice it, when starfish she had collected for a study began to develop white lesions and then melt away in her aquarium. Some of the sick ones actually shed all their limbs in response to the stress.

Other researchers have since reported the same disturbing phenomenon. Divers from the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod are also finding that concentrations of starfish—or sea stars, as scientists prefer to call them—have been  … to read the rest of this item, click here.

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