Starfish 'Wasting' Disease Is Tearing Sea Stars Apart

Image: Starfish 'Wasting' Disease Is Tearing Sea Stars Apart

Monday, 03 Feb 2014 06:58 PM

By Jonna Lorenz

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A mysterious disease is tearing apart starfish and biologists don’t know what is causing the affliction, which they have named sea star wasting syndrome.

The disease, first spotted in Washington, has been seen in 12 species of starfish from California to Alaska, as well as in Vancouver and along the eastern coast of the United States. Afflicted animals develop lesions and their arms twist off, literally tearing apart the bodies.

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Scuba diver Laura James told NPR about finding the afflicted starfish near her home in West Seattle.

“There were just bodies everywhere,” James said. “There were just splats. It looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.”

She was one of the first to alert scientists.

Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist from Cornell University, has coordinated scientists on both coasts to look into the outbreak. The National Science Foundation has provided funding for the investigation.

“This is an opportunity for understanding more about the transmission and rates of disease in the ocean, so it’s important that we gather the right kinds of data,” Harvell said, NPR reported.

Some theories about what may be causing the affliction have included low oxygen levels, environmental toxins, climate change, ocean acidification, radiation, and tsunami debris. But there isn’t enough evidence yet to determine a link.

Jeff Marliave, vice-president of marine science at the Vancouver Aquarium, told the Times Colonist that the epidemic may be a natural way to control the population of the animals.

Marine naturalist Andy Lamb told the Times Colonist that the problem is developing rapidly.

"In Chemainus, we went over and did some diving where the Boeing 737 was sunk, and everything seemed to be OK, and we went back two weeks later and it was devastation. Just amazing," he said.

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