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“Spooky” Disease Turning Starfish to “Slime”

Posted by feww on November 5, 2013

“Star wasting disease” hits dozens of coastal sites from southeast Alaska to Orange County, California

The spooky disease is causing record numbers of the marine animals to lose their limbs and turn to slime in a matter of days along the U.S. West Coast, said a report.

“It’s pretty spooky because we don’t have any obvious culprit for the root cause even though we know it’s likely caused by a pathogen,” said Pete Raimondi, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Lab.

star wasting disease
Star wasting disease. Image credit: Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. More images …

Sea star wasting disease is a general description of a set of symptoms that are found in sea stars.  Typically, lesions appear in the ectoderm followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions, which leads to eventual fragmentation of the body and death.  A deflated appearance can precede other morphological signs of the disease.  All of these symptoms are also associated with ordinary attributes of unhealthy stars and can arise when an individual is stranded too high in the intertidal zone (for example) and simply desiccates,”  according to a report by the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“True” wasting disease will be present in individuals that are found in suitable habitat, often in the midst of other individuals that might also be affected.  The progression of wasting disease can be rapid, leading to death within a few days, and its effects can be devastating on seastar populations. The proximal cause of the disease, when pathological studies have been done, is typically a bacterium (vibrio), although a recent wasting event on the east coast of the United States has been attributed to a virus.  The ultimate cause is not clear although such events are often associated with warmer than typical water temperatures as was the case for the major die off in southern California in 1983-1984 and again (on a lesser scale) in 1997-98. Following the 1983-1984 event, the ochre star, Pisaster ochraceus, was virtually absent along southern California shorelines for years.

Wasting in Pisaster ochraceus from Alaska through California

As of Summer, 2013, there is evidence that we are at the onset of another Wasting event and one that is particularly troubling because of its spatial extent. MARINe monitoring groups have documented Wasting in Pisaster ochraceus from Alaska through California (see interactive map for specific locations).  Two common attributes for many of the sites are: (1) the period prior to Wasting was characterized by warm water temperatures, and (2) the effects are dramatic.

The current outbreak killed up to 95 percent of hundreds of starfish in a tide pool in Santa Cruz, the report quoted Raimondi as saying.

At least 10 species of sea stars have shown signs of the disease since June, this year, said Raimondi, adding that he was unable to estimate how many millions of starfish on the West Coast might be affected.

“We’re way at the onset now, so we just don’t know how bad it’s going to get,” he said.

Pisaster ochraceus feed on mussels thus managing the growth of the species in the ocean, which would otherwise multiply out of control and disrupt biodiversity.

Recent Links to Marine Die-offs

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