Starfish: Sentinel for Organizational Health?

1024 768 Roddy Carter

Do you remember the picture in your first grade reader of a beach with golden sand, blue waves, a yellow sun, a striped deck chair and umbrella, a bucket and spade, and the ubiquitous starfish? Despite their robust appearance lying on the sand in the baking sun in your childhood book, these are sensitive creatures, barometers of ecological health. Should our business books also have a picture of a starfish on the front cover?

For almost 450 million years, the planet has been inhabited by some 2,000 species of starfish. Only half of their original name is correct. Most species have five legs, arranged in five sections (or multiples thereof), hence their star-like appearance. They do not have the gills, scales or fins of fish, so they are not fish, although this marine predator does live in the water and intertidal zones of our oceans. To correct this taxonomic misnomer, modern scientists refer to these animals as Sea Stars.

Sea Stars belong to the Phylum Echinodermata, referring to their tough exterior. These extraordinary invertebrates are known for several remarkable characteristics, each of which deserves their own blog.

  1. They digest their prey outside of their bodies by externalizing their stomach. They turn their stomach inside out, allowing the digestive juices to attack the captured prey, before drawing the nutrients back into its body.
  2. They “walk” by sucking water into their “inflatable” legs. The incoming water expands and stretches out the leg so they can “reach” ahead. Suckers then hold onto something solid while muscles pull the body towards the anchored foot. Specialized pumps control the flow of water in and out of their limbs.
  3. Sea Stars have the remarkable physiological ability to regenerate damaged limbs, making them the subject of much current medical research.

We will return to these magical tricks another day. For now, I am more interested in landmark observations published almost 50 years ago in The American Naturalist by ecologist Robert Paine. He removed the Sea Stars from some tidal pools by hand, and compared the consequences with other pools left untouched. The Sea Star deprived pools suffered significant ecological degradation, losing over half the species of life they previously enjoyed. This phenomenon classifies Sea Stars as a “Keystone” species. Removing them induces a cascade of negative consequences disproportionate to their limited abundance. Due to this exaggerated ecological impact, some scientists now regard them as the “canaries” of the ocean – sensitive barometers of change that predict the long-term health of the system.

This started me thinking about our human organizational context. Do you have “Keystone” employees, or a “Keystone” indicator of your organization’s health? Are there certain voices that you always listen for, or certain messages that reveal subtle shifts of lasting importance? I can remember hearing a fairly senior manager talking about his workplace. He told me “the reason I complain so loudly is that I tend to be the tip of the iceberg; I know that if I am suffering discomfort that my colleagues are too and we will soon be facing major disruption”. He was right. The company soon headed into a bad slump, with morale and productivity plummeting. Of course, senior management had ignored his pleas. He left the company when his voice was not heard. How would you differentiate the cries of a threatened Sea Star in your organization from those of a habitual complainer, or a “squeaky wheel”?

I would suggest that whether you run a bank, a research institute, a religious center, local government or even a division in the military, you should examine the concept of a “Keystone” species. Early detection of serious problems will avert pain and disruption, and their associated human and financial burdens.

Sadly, the Sea Stars of the Pacific coast of North America are in trouble. This apex predator is dwindling rapidly as the result of a lethal condition known as “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome”. Scientists are arguing about the cause. We do not know if it is the result of an infection (more likely viral than bacterial or fungal), or the consequence of elevated ocean temperatures from global warming, or both. Either way, a number of species are under threat of extinction, and the overall numbers of all species are vastly reduced. This has happened twice before over the past four decades, with full recovery of the Sea Star populations, so there may not be cause for alarm. The widespread demise of a Keystone animal will always raise concerns about broader, more enduring environmental impact.

I hope this article brings you to a momentary pause in your busy life. Please consider the role of key employees or groups whose critical voices predict the future. More importantly, please keep an eye out for the plight of our Pacific Ocean, its intertidal paradise, and these delicate and beautiful creatures that play such an important role in its health.

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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