With thousands of miles of coastline in North America, scientists can’t be everywhere at once to keep an eye out for sick and dying starfish.
“We suddenly need the fine scale, widespread data that only citizen science will be able to provide us,” said Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University, who has been coordinating the research into the mysterious mass die-offs of starfish, as known as sea stars, up and down the West Coast of North America.
Puget Sound diver Laura James has built a new tool to make it easy for citizen scientists to help.
“The big problem we had here is that we didn’t have a baseline. The starfish got sick when we noticed,” James said. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could show the spread and the changes in real time?”
James and her dive buddy Lamont Granquist created a sick starfish website for tracking posts to social media sites like Twitter and Instagram. If divers, tidepoolers or beachcombers snap photos of starfish and add the hashtag #sickstarfish, their reports will automatically upload to the map.
“We may not be able to stop it. We may not be able to fix it. But we need to be aware so that we can recognize it when it happens again,” James said.
Citizen scientists who can recognize the symptoms of the die-offs and distinguish between different species of sea stars are being asked to make more detailed reports to the sea star wasting map built at the University of California Santa Cruz.