A mysterious disease that has turned hundreds of starfish into limp lumps of goo along both the East and West coasts in recent months could potentially induce a cascade of other ecological effects in tidal systems, researchers say.
The disease known as sea star wasting syndrome begins as a small lesion, and eventually results in the loss of limbs and ultimate disintegration and death of the leggy animal. The cause of the disease remains unknown to researchers, who have not been able to determine if it is related to a bacterial infection, a virus or a combination of effects worsened by environmental stressors, such as increased water temperature.
The syndrome has afflicted sea star populations on the West Coast in the past, and in those instances, populations eventually bounced back, Smithsonian invertebrate zoologist Christopher Mah told LiveScience. But this current episode appears more severe than previous cases, killing up to 95 percent of some populations consisting of hundreds of individuals, The Associated Press reported.
“We’ve never seen it at this scale up and down the coast,” Pete Raimondi, a professor of ecology at the University of California Santa Cruz involved in tracking the disease, said in a statement on Nov. 5.