Something is killing starfish up and down the West Coast and no one knows what.
mysterious illness that first appeared in June in Washington state has
now spread from Sitka, Alaska, to San Diego. Starfish first waste away
and then "turn into goo," divers say. Whatever is causing it can spread
with astonishing speed - a healthy group of starfish can die in just 24
"It's widespread, it's very virulent and it's unlike
anything we've seen in the past," said Pete Raimondi, a marine ecologist
at the University of California-Santa Cruz who is one of the lead
researchers in an international effort to track the outbreak.
ailment seems to hit starfish the hardest, with smaller numbers of sea
urchins and sea cucumbers reported falling to it. No one knows what
percentage of the West Coast's starfish are affected but in some areas
they've been wiped out.
So far at least 12 different starfish species are known to be at risk, Raimondi said.
biologists call starfish "sea stars" because they are not actually
fish, but invertebrates. They've dubbed the ailment "sea star wasting
The first case was reported in a tide pool in
Washington state's Olympic NationalPark in June. Within weeks sea stars
in the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia were dying, and sea stars
near Sitka, Alaska, also began to fall ill.
The animals first
"look a little bit odd," said Mike Murray, director of veterinary
services at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. "Their arms
may be twisted or weirdly positioned."
They then develop what look
like tiny wounds on their surface and bits of whitish discoloration.
Within days and sometimes hours, the animal begins to waste away and
fall apart. "It's almost like they're melting," he says. "They turn into
slime or goo, they just kind of disintegrate."
asking recreational divers to report outbreaks. Don Noviello is a member
of the Kelp Krawlers Dive Club in Olympia Wash. He and a dive partner
saw their first infected sea stars on Dec. 21.
"It's like they become zombies of the sea," Noviello said. "I saw a leg walking away by itself," he said.
are scrambling to find the cause. The National Science Foundation gave
rapid response research grants over the summer so marine biologists
could begin intensively studying the problem. Groups far and wide are
involved, including the National Wildlife Center in Madison, Wis.,
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and various universities in Canada.
are now going up and down the West Coast looking for outbreaks so they
can develop an accurate map of affected areas. The list is ever
increasing. "We had our first report in Santa Barbara on Dec. 7,"
Raimondi said. "Last week, they found five affected areas there."
believe the sea stars' actual disintegration and death is caused by
bacterial infection, but they have no idea what's suddenly making them
Raimondi put it this way: "Suppose someone's walking
down the street and they get stabbed in the arm and develop an infection
and die. So the infection killed them, but the real question is this:
Who stabbed them in the first place?"
There have been previous,
small scale sea star die-offs. While they looked similar, "there are
only certain ways starfish can look when they die. A melting starfish is
going to look like a melting starfish," Murray said.
could be a toxins, a virus, bacteria, manmade chemicals, ocean
acidification, wastewater discharge or warming oceans. "We're not ruling
anything out," Raimondi said.
The fact that the ailment is so
widespread is what's most troubling, said Benjamin Miner, a professor
of marine biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
"Every time you come up with what seems like a reasonable hypothesis,
it's challenged because other affected places don't match."
is killing the sea stars is highly lethal. "We've had populations go
locally extinct overnight. Literally. Some species go from completely
fine to a mush ball in 24 hours," said Miner, who's organizing the
Starfish may seem fairly unimportant, but they're
actually a keystone species in many marine environments. Most live near
the shore, but some inhabit the bottom of deep seas. Few things eat
them, but they are a top predator, eating mussels, barnacles and sea
"The niche they fill is vital. If they die off, the
ecological communities they live in could change fundamentally,"
Sea stars aren't eaten by humans, and there is no
danger to people who might come into contact with them, Murray said.
However, "melting sea stars, or not, any time you handle wildlife, you
want to wash your hands."
Asked for a bright spot, Raimondi could
only think of one: "Sea stars don't feel pain," so death by dissolving
doesn't hurt them.