Emerging from a recent dive 40 feet below the surface of Puget Sound, biologist Ben Miner wasn't surprised by what he found: The troubling disease that wiped out millions of starfish up and down the West Coast had not spared this site along the rocky cliffs of Lopez Island. Only a dozen adult starfish, also known as sea stars, were found in an area where they were once abundant. But his chart also revealed good news—a few baby sea stars offered a glimmer of hope for the creature's recovery. In scattered sites along the Pacific Coast, researchers and others have reported seeing hundreds of juvenile starfish, buoying hopes for a potential comeback from a disease that has caused millions of purple, red, and orange sea starfish to curl up, grow lesions, lose limbs, and disintegrate into a pile of goo.
"Babies. That's what we hope for," says Miner, a professor of biology at Western Washington University. "If you're hoping for sea star populations to recover, it's the best news you can get to be able to go to sites and see that there are babies." Other researchers say that at some sites, more baby starfish were seen this year than in the previous 15 years put together. Miner says juveniles, while not entirely immune, may be less susceptible to the virus fingered as the likely culprit of the sea star wasting disease. He now plans to look into whether the juveniles will survive into adulthood—and into what will happen to the ecosystem in the absence of so many sea stars, a key predator of mussels and sea urchins.