High winds, rough seas and strong currents were most likely behind the mass stranding of thousands of starfish on South Padre Island beaches this week.
The shoreline is still littered with the gray sea stars that began washing up on Jan. 26.
“We thought it was the cold weather at first,” said Tony Reisinger, Cameron County Extension Agent for Coastal & Marine Resources with Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M University. “Texas Parks and Wildlife thought that, too.”
For a further explanation of the stranding, Reisinger said he turned to Dr. David Hicks, chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
“Dr. Hicks is the one who really figured it out,” Reisinger said. “He thinks it was rough seas and high winds and strong currents that made for the right conditions, along with the probability that the starfish were close to shore feeding. All of those forces tossed them up on the shore.”
Gray sea stars range from Virginia to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the cooler waters in some of that range, the theory that the South Texas cold snap was the cause was tossed out.
Gray sea stars, known as shallow-water asteroids, live in muddy or sandy bottoms where they feed on small bivalves like clams.
“They live around our sandbar system off South Padre Island,” Reisinger said.
“When they move through the sand or mud, they have receptors that they use to move food that they find on the bottom to their mouths,” he said.
“Mass mortalities of this species have occurred three times before in the northern Gulf according to unpublished literature,” Reisinger wrote on the Texas Coastal Naturalist Facebook page.