Millions of starfish washing up dead along the west coast
Scientists are alarmed as starfish are essential to local marine biology
Millions and millions of starfish have been washing up dead all along the western coast of the United States. Scientists are baffled and highly worried, as the starfish are absolutely essential to the marine ecosystem.
White lesions on the arms of the sea star -- considered among the largest starfish as it can span more than a meter in diameter, are among the most common signs of distress.
"The two species affected most are Pisaster ochraceus (purple sea star or ochre starfish) and Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower sea star)," Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey\'s National Wildlife Health Center wrote in December.
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White lesions on the arms of the sea star -- considered among the largest starfish as it can span more than a meter in diameter, are among the most common signs of distress. The lesions spread quickly, resulting in the loss of the arm. The infection then consumes the creature\'s entire body in a matter of days, and it dies.
Entire populations have been wiped out in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state, in the Salish Sea off Canada\'s British Columbia as well as along the coast of California. The mortality rate is estimated at a staggering 95 percent. Scientists have yet to identify the cause.
"What we currently think is likely happening is that there is a pathogen, like a parasite or a virus or a bacteria, that is infecting the sea stars and that compromises in some way their immune system," Pete Raimondi, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says.
The creatures become more susceptible to bacteria, which is \"causing a secondary infection that causes most of the damages that you see." A smaller outbreak also killed East Coast sea stars last year.
The previous instances were believed to be associated with warmer waters as sea stars have sensitive skin and prefer cooler water, but this was not the case in 2013. With those die-offs, the geographic span of the infections was much smaller, and far fewer sea stars were affected.
An epidemic nearly wiped out the Pisaster ochraceus from tidal pools in 1983 along the southern coast of California.
Another, smaller die-off in 1997 may have been caused by warmer waters in an El Nino year, scientists said.
Sea stars "play a key role in this ecosystem on the West Coast," Raimondi says. Sea stars eat mussels, barnacles, snails, mollusks and other smaller sea life, so their health is considered a measure of marine life on the whole in a given area.
When sea stars decline in number, "the mussel population has the potential to dramatically increase, which could significantly alter the rocky intertidal zone," Sleeman says.
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