Friday, 30 November 2012

Mysterious stranding on Irish beach involved up to 50,000 starfish

By: Pete Thomas,

It was a surreal and somewhat ghostly sight: that of perhaps 50,000 starfish that somehow had come ashore overnight, en masse, and perished on a secluded beach in Ireland. The Belfast Telegraph reports that harsh weather might have been responsible for last week's peculiar and mysterious event, on Lissadell Beach.

Bill Crowe, a marine biologist at Sligo Institute of Technology, theorized that the starfish (also called sea stars) might have been lifted ashore while feeding on mussel beds in the nearshore tidal zone. They were spread over nearly 500 feet of coastline.

"The most likely explanation is that they were feeding on mussels, but it is a little strange that none of them were attached to mussels when they were washed in," Crowe said.

A toxic algae bloom would seem another possible explanation, but no other type of marine life was affected. Only starfish, mostly adult size, were found on the beach.

Equally mysterious is that virtually all of the starfish were dead, meaning they had succumbed surprisingly quickly after coming or being delivered ashore.

Other experts agreed that the most likely explanation is stormy weather, and perhaps high surf that deposited the starfish on the beach.

"They turned up almost certainly as a result of an exceptional storm event," said Tim Roderick, an officer with Ireland's National Parks and Wildlife Service. "A storm hit the seabed where these sub-tidal animals were and lifted them up and washed them ashore."

The bizarre incident, like a smaller-scale die-off that occurred earlier this year on another beach in Ireland, remains under investigation.

Starfish, which can live up to 35 years in the wild, are among the most interesting critters in the world oceans. They possess no brains, and no blood. According to National Geographic: "Their nervous system is spread through their arms and their 'blood' is actually filtered sea water."

They're carnivorous and feed largely on clams, mussels and oysters.

"Using tiny, suction-cupped tube feet, they pry open clams or oysters, and their sack-like cardiac stomach emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell," National Geographic explains. "The stomach then envelops the prey to digest it, and finally withdraws back into the body."

It remains unclear who collected the 50,000 dead specimens on Lissadell Beach, and what became of them.

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