Five years ago, a sixth grade in land-locked Arkansas heard about a mass die-off of starfish on the west coast and felt compelled to help.
The 11- and 12-year-olds elected a chairman to head their fundraiser. They cut out paper starfish – more formally known as sea stars – and put them up for "adoption" for a $ 1 donation. They assigned them names and personality traits, such as Cherry Bomb, who "loves hanging out on her phone", "rocks the legging style" and "is really smart but is not a nerd". They sold T-shirts that read: "Save the Starfish."
"We do not have an ocean anywhere near by," their now retired teacher Vickie Bailey said. "The students knew that they would never go to the coast, but they were so passionate about what was happening."
When Drew Harvell, a marine ecology professor and researcher at Cornell University, received the $ 400 or so Carl Stuart middle school in Conway collected, she knew the money should go to something important.
"I almost cried, I was so touched. So I matched it with $ 400 of my own and then one of our donors here put in a bigger amount of money and that's basically the funding that allowed us to do the initial survey, "Harvell said.
Flash forward to today: Harvell and her co-authors are releasing their study inspired by the seed money from the kids. Cornell and the University of California, Davis, are publishing their work in the journal Science Advances.
The campaign did not exactly save the starfish. The findings are dire. But researchers now know much more about the scope of the die-off after analyzing data from trained recreational and professional divers and deep offshore trawls.
Sea star wasting disease has affected more than 20 species from Mexico to Alaska. Some species resisted the disease better and others have evolved to survive.
At the time of the outbreak, videos showed beaches littered with the arms of dead starfish, internal organs spilling out through lesions, Harvell recalled.
"This is [one of] the most extensive wildlife disease epidemic[s] we've ever recorded because it's so many species in such a massively wide geographic area, "Harvell said.
The effect has been particularly bad for the sunflower star, a 3-4ft-wide creature that can have as many as two dozen arms. The sunflower star "crawls over the seafloor like a robotic vacuum cleaner, munching on everything in its path" as described by Cornell's media team.
Sunflower sea stars, which live only on the west coast of North America, are virtually removed from the waters off California, Oregon and Washington.
Previous research has suggested that with warmer temperatures linked to climate change, the wasting disease has a higher risk of infection and kills sea stars faster. The new study finds that outbreaks of the virus among the sunflower sea stars coincided with anomalously warm waters.
And the disappearance of the species is having cascading effects on the ecosystem.
Sunflower sea stars once kept the sea urchin population under control, but now urchin numbers are exploding, leading to barrens where they have devoured kelp habitats down to the pink sea floor beneath them.
While the species is imperiled in the lower 48, they're doing a little better in British Columbia and in some places in Alaska, Harvell said. Researchers will need to understand whether the sunflower sea star can be repatriated if the disease ever leaves the west coast waters.
"It's really vital that something be done," Harvell said. "It's not an issue that we've dealt with before so I do not have an immediate suggestion of what we would do. I think that we definitely need to convene a group of scientists and really talk about the issue and what are the highest priority items. "