What’s killing all the sea stars along the West Coast?

Monday, September 29, 2014
By Paul Martin

by: Julie Wilson
Monday, September 29, 2014

Millions of sea stars have mysteriously been wiped out along the Pacific coast, stretching from Alaska all the way to Mexico. Sea stars, belonging to the class Asteroidea, have been around for 450 million years, according to researchers. More than 20 species of sea stars are showing signs of what experts call “wasting syndrome,” a condition causing the ancient star’s limbs to disintegrate and melt, resulting in massive die-offs.

Last November, divers off the coast of Washington were able to catch video footage of the diseased starfish, describing the melting process as beginning with a “strange loss of coordination and inability to grasp onto objects.” Their limbs and insides eventually began to fall apart, piling on top of each other, creating heaps of dead sea stars.

“They are dying — wasting away, drying out and disintegrating into sun-bleached piles of dust. Limbs detach from the body and seem to melt away,” reported The Islands’ Sounder.

Researchers have known about the recent die-offs for about a year, but the cause is still unknown

“We have evidence that an infectious agent is involved, but it is too soon to say yet whether it is a virus or a bacterium,” said Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University.

“It’s the largest mortality event for marine diseases we’ve seen. It affects over 20 species on our coast and it’s been causing catastrophic mortality,” added Harvell, who has specialized in studying outbreaks among coral reef invertebrates.

In the San Juans, a group of four islands off the coast of Washington, biologists discovered that 49 percent of the sea star population is diseased and dying. The disease moves quickly. When experts first examined ochre sea stars near Indian Island, they noted only 10 percent to be sick, but just weeks later found that number to have multiplied five times.

More than 40 expert biologists from West Coast universities and surrounding aquariums are intensely studying what could be the cause of wasting syndrome. “This is slow, careful work that takes repeated experimentation in the lab and many tests to verify,” Harvell said.

In regard to extinction, she added, “We expect the stars to recover. But this is such a big, widespread event, it could take a long time.”

The Rest…HERE

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