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    Monday
    May222017

    Russian Gulch State Park, Wasting Syndrome, and the Way the Human Race Ends

    Sea stars along much of the North American Pacific coast are dying in great numbers from a mysterious wasting syndrome. Similar die-offs have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and the 90s, but never before at this magnitude and over such a wide geographic area. 

                                                                                                   -UCSC Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, April 2017, Sea Star Wasting Syndrome
     

    Explorers along the west coast of North America also found new stocks of coastal whales.  On his 1786 voyage that took him to Monterey Bay, California, for example, La Perouse remarked, “One cannot put into words the number of whales that surround us nor familiarity; they blew constantly, within half a pistol shot of our frigates, and filled the air with a great stench.”

                                                                                                                                                                                     -Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea
     

    No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                         -H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds 

     

               Below are two slideshows of some photographs I took while hiking and kayaking around Russian Gulch State Park along the beautiful Mendocino coast last week.  Something you won’t see in the pictures are sea stars, which apparently have all died-off in a phenomenon called wasting syndrome that began around 2014.   Possibly associated with a virus called denosovirus or a spike in eastern Pacific Ocean temperatures during the last Pacific decadal oscillation, sea star bodies began to liquefy or turn to mush and melt away, limb after limb, asteroid after asteroid, from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California (click here to view a sea star wasting map).   I remember witnessing wasting syndrome take effect and decimating the sea star population along the Northern California coast where, while they never appeared in abundance, their presence seemed to a regular fixture and expected part of the tidepools and rocky offshore outcroppings, often eating the flourishing aggregations of mussels covering the rocks.

     

    diseased pisaster ochraceus a
    Wasting Syndrome, Photo Credit: Christy Bell (right), Rachael Williams (left)


            I once had a conversation with a friend in which I remarked that I would love to have been able to see what the coast looked like a century ago because there must have been a significantly greater abundance of incredible sea life and animal species that are no longer around today (just imagine the beachcombing opportunities in the 1800s).    My friend wrote-off my point with the rejoinder that in a century from now people will be nostalgically longing to see the presumably healthier former state of the coasts of 2017.  While my friend was not wrong, I don’t think I was altogether wrong either (though had I traveled back in time a hundred years from now, it’s probable I would have seen even less of many species of whales and other marine mammals, such as the Northern elephant seal, that were hunted to the brink of extinction in throughout 19th and 20th centuries).  If one were to go back in time, century by century, with the purpose of examining the array of life on land and sea, their voyage would be brimming with a cornucopia of bizarre and beautiful plants and animals.  It’s not clear if the same can be said if one were to go forward in time, century by century, for our planet may eventually be transform into a desiccated, scrubbed down, barren, lifeless rock, like Venus, but who knows what Venus will be like one billion years from now.  Perhaps it will be like Earth. 

    Image: Whaling on Dannes Island, Abraham Speeck, 1634

             My friend’s broader point was that our reality is defined by what we think we know and that our perspectives are relative.  Humans a hundred years from now may perceive the state of the environment in which they live much like many present-day humans: with a sense of yearning for the edenic, biologically-rich past (although I wouldn’t want to venture too far back, for anything prior to the Neoproterozoic Era, one billion years ago, with its acid green skies, barren primordial seas, and frozen desert supercontinent seems like it could be pretty harsh) and apocalyptic dread for the future.  In a thousand years from now humans may view those who are alive today similar to how modern man largely views those who lived in 1,000 A.D. – as superstitious peons who were uninformed about the nature of reality due to restrictions (by no fault of their own, but imposed by time and history) related to knowledge, technology, repressive religious ideologies, and political constructs which limited their ability to scientifically appreciate their stations in life (although I think it would be difficult to make the case that those erstwhile denizens of Spaceship Earth were any less intelligent than many people are today, especially those holding political office).  (Many in developed societies probably see contemporary indigenous cultures in this light – as primitive, inferior, and backward, lacking internet technology and thus an accurate grasp of the how the world operates and who they truly are.)   The ignorance exhibited by our ancestors led to them to form incorrect conclusions about the shape and geography of Earth, as well as their position in the universe.  As highly-informed members of a technologically-advanced space-faring civilization, we consider ourselves to be more intellectually evolved than our predecessors (although most of must simply accept facts as truth without knowing why they’re facts; if the average person were asked to independently verify that the Earth is round or how they know that there are over 100 billion stars in Milky Way galaxy, they may have a hard time explaining this.)   It’s possible that in a millennium from now humans may look back at us with pity for our pathetically minuscule understanding of the extent and operations of universe (or universes).  Perhaps an alien species is already looking down upon humans now as we look down at colony of ants that perceive their domain to be the center of the universe, but are sorely mistaken. 

     

           
                Early last year, when the Zika virus made a splash, I was curious if it would infect everyone across the planet in a global outbreak of microcephaly.  I thought, “So this is the way humanity ends, with a virus that makes our heads small.  How fitting.”  This clearly did not happen, but it demonstrates that despite all the incredible and miraculous progress in combating bacteria, diseases, and viruses, humans remain susceptible to microbes, and the potential exists for our species to be wiped-out by an infectious particle or spore.  Some insects can be infected by a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps, of which there are over four hundred species.  When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, mycelium infects the insect, (sometimes neurologically, thus affecting its behavior) killing it and growing a fruiting body from the host.  The Jungles episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth series has a hauntingly beautiful montage (above) of various Cordyceps species and the insects they’ve infected and killed.  Is it possible that Cordyceps might one day evolve to infect humans, laying waste to us en masse via mind-controlling spores that drive people mad and produce giant fruiting mushroom bodies that erupt from our corpses?  Is there a chance that a wasting syndrome-like virus may one day lead to mass mortality among humans, liquefying our dismembered limbs and causing our heads to melt off, just as it has among the devastated eastern Pacific Ocean sea star population?  Since Cordyceps only infect arthropods, and the densovirus only infects only echinoderms, it is unlikely that these microscopic agents will induce a plague among humans.  But this is not to say that an epidemic could not appear in some other creative form that Mother Earth will have fashioned solely for us, and perhaps she’s simply waiting for just the right moment to show us what she’s got.  

    Russian Gulch from Land:



    Russian Gulch from Sea:

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