Scientists are investigating the cause of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, an outbreak that has resulted in the demise of hundreds of thousands of starfish along the Pacific Ocean.
According to the OC Register, the disease has been decimating the five-pointed beauties in Washington State since last year but only arrived on the scene in Southern California this past February.
The stars’ demise begins with the development of lesions, or white marks on their bodies. Once they become infected, the sea stars lose their rigidity and start to discard their limbs and literally pull themselves apart in the course of a few hours. Their legs can be observed actually walking away from their bodies. Piles of white ooze are often left behind in the areas a sea star once inhabited, the Register writes. Sea star wasting syndrome ranges from Sitka, Alaska to Mexico’s Coronado Islands.
The spread has reportedly even reached the state’s aquariums, with die-offs reported in both Monterey Bay Aquarium and Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific. “In November last year, we had to start pulling out the animals and euthanizing them,” said Mike Murray, veterinarian at Monterey Bay.
The infiltration of the disease into California’s aquariums has prompted Cornell microbiology professor Ian Hewson to investigate whether a water-borne microorganism is behind the disease. While pinpointing an exact virus, bacteria, or parasite in a sea star has proved extremely difficult, Hewson has found one significant lead. Warm water could cause the pathogen to reproduce more quickly or become more virulent for sea stars than it already is. And with scientists predicting an El Niño event this year, it could exacerbate the event even further.
With their disappearance, scientists are worried other marine species could be affected by the disturbance in the sea, which could drastically change the ocean ecosystems the sea stars once inhabited.