In August 2011, scientists walked into their labs and were met with a disturbing sight: thousands of purple sea urchins and other marine invertebrates were dead in their tanks—which are fed directly by seawater.
Outside, the tea-colored ocean washed up carcasses of red abalone, large sea stars, and football-sized, snail-like chitons.
Less conspicuous—but even more heavily impacted as a population—were millions of purple sea urchins and tiny sea stars that died along a 62-mile stretch of coast in Northern California, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE.
“We might not have known urchins and six-armed sea stars were affected if lab-held animals hadn’t died right in front of us,” says Laura Jurgens, a graduate student at the Bodega Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.
Instead, the mass mortality was likely caused by a harmful algal bloom. Such blooms are expected to occur more often due to the combination of global warming, ocean acidification, and land-use changes, scientists warn.
That is all the more reason why documenting such mass mortality events is important to better understand—and prepare for—trends happening to ocean ecosystems, Jurgens says.
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