Imagine walking along the beach on a cold morning, looking towards the sand and finding it covered with starfish. That was the sight that greeted those in Ramsgate, England, in March 2018, as thousands of the creatures had washed up on shore. But while the scene may sound romantic – beautiful, even – the reality was altogether more distressing.
The majority of the starfish were dead, for one, although efforts were made to rescue those still living. And the unusual event affected Kent resident Lara Maiklem, who would tell CNN, “It was shocking and sad. I’ve never seen anything like it, [it was] almost biblical in scale.”
Meanwhile, Keith Ross, who had been at the scene, said to the network, “It is not until you see it for yourself that you can appreciate the scale and numbers of dead sea life washed up on the beach.” He added, “The locals have never seen anything like it.”
Indeed, according to Maiklem, the echinoderms had not only appeared in Ramsgate; they could also be seen on beaches in the neighboring town of Broadstairs. All in all, then, the incident was what London’s Natural History Museum would term “one of the biggest mass strandings on record for the U.K.”
And, as it happens, other ocean-dwellers had turned up on shore, too. Fish were also among the stranded, along with a number of crabs, sea urchins and sea anemones. One explorer even discovered a pair of false teeth on the Ramsgate beach. But why had so many of the creatures been washed up in the first place?
Well, adverse weather conditions were cited as a possible cause in some quarters of the British press. At the time of the stranding, the U.K. had been suffering from a prolonged cold snap that had brought heavy snow and freezing temperatures – the result of an anticyclone that was subsequently dubbed the “Beast from the East.”
Storm Emma brought further blizzards and high winds to parts of the country in early March 2018. And, unfortunately, those on land were greatly affected by the weather event, too. Flights were grounded and thousands of other people were left unable to travel; tragically, there were also 16 fatalities linked to the combined effects of Storm Emma and the Beast from the East.
The starfish found in Ramsgate, however, may have materialized on the beach thanks in part to the way in which they move along the seabed. This process is referred to as “starballing,” as the creatures make themselves more spherical by curling their arms; they are then more easily able to roll for distances.
Indeed, starballing could be why starfish are particularly susceptible to being stranded on beaches. This theory was considered by scientists from the Marine Institute at the U.K.’s University of Plymouth, after they had witnessed the echinoderms in action back in 2013.
In 2016, however, institute research fellow Dr. Emma Sheehan revealed that more work has to be done to confirm the hypothesis that starballing is a contributing factor to mass strandings. She said, “At this point, we simply cannot say whether the starballing individuals were swept off the seabed by the strong tidal flow, or if the individuals allowed themselves to be transported.”
Of the incident in Ramsgate and others like it at the time, however, the Marine Conservation Society were able to come to a more definite conclusion. On its official website, the organization said, “The cause [of the strandings] appears to be a combination of the extreme cold… and the depth at which storm waves have penetrated.”
It’s certainly not unusual for starfish to be dispersed by strong currents, however. And if there’s heavy rain in the vicinity, too, that may increase the possibility that the creatures are subsequently stranded. The Smithsonian Institution’s Dr. Christopher Mah explains on his website, for example, “Echinoderms are notoriously intolerant of… freshwater. Low-salinity water might serve to weaken or otherwise just disable enough of them to be washed ashore.”
Dr. Mah has also explained that Asterias rubens, the species of starfish most typically found in British and Irish waters, is “known to [dwell] on sandy… sediment [sea] bottoms.” Therefore, he concluded, “it’s not unreasonable to see how strong water currents associated with inclement weather could serve to pick them up and drop them ashore.”
By contrast, according to the Marine Conservation Society, crabs and lobsters are more prone to travel away from shores when storms arise. This, in turn, may explain why there were relatively few of the crustaceans to be found on Ramsgate’s beach.
And while the Ramsgate stranding may be notable for the sheer numbers of sea creatures washed up, it’s far from the only incident of its kind to have taken place in the U.K. At around the same time, for instance, hordes of crustaceans and fish appeared on the beaches along the coast of Holderness, in Yorkshire, England.
And, again, the amount of ocean-dwellers to be found on shore was alarming. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has even been quoted as saying that they were “ankle deep” on beaches close to the town of Bridlington. But, again, there’s a potential explanation for such an event.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Bex Lynam told The Yorkshire Post, “There was a three-degree drop in sea temperature… which will have caused animals to hunker down and reduce their activity levels. This makes them vulnerable to rough seas – they became dislodged by large waves and washed ashore when the rough weather kicked in.”
Still, while the mass stranding in Ramsgate may have been distressing to witness in particular, it’s not thought to have been a catastrophe for the starfish population. The creatures are very common in British waters, for one, and their numbers are not known to have been decimated after previous incidents of this nature.
Perhaps more threatening to the echinoderms is a disease that, in some cases, can cause starfish to detach their arms. Outbreaks of “starfish wasting syndrome” have been recorded as having taken place in the U.S. and Canada in 2013; the sea star-associated densovirus is thought to be linked to the condition.
If you ever encounter a starfish stranded on a beach, though, there’s an easy way to tell whether it’s still alive or not. Simply touch its softer underside with care – and if its tube feet move, return it to the sea, where it should hopefully continue to thrive.