Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Growing Worse, Threatens Entire Populations
The mysterious and deadly condition that's ravaged sea star populations throughout West Coast waters is apparently close to wiping out an entire species.
According to biologists, incidence of the so-called sea star wasting syndrome -- which causes stars to literally tear themselves apart -- have burst along the Oregon coast in just the last few weeks and decimated the regional population of purple ochre sea stars to such a degree, the local population of the creatures may never recover.
Researchers from Oregon State University say that before last month, Oregon waters had largely remained unaffected by the fatal affliction, a virtual oasis of marine normalcy amid the destruction suffered everywhere else up and down the coastline.
"Parts of California, Washington, and British Columbia had already been affected by this outbreak of the wasting syndrome," said Kristen Milligan, program coordinator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a collaboration between OSU, the University of California Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University.
"It wasn't clear why those areas had been hit and Oregon had not," Milligan said. "We were hoping that Oregon's coast would be spared. Although it was hit late, we are obviously being hit hard."
The ochre sea star is considered a keystone predator within the local ecosystem, so its potential loss could disrupt the area's entire intertidal environment.
Researchers explain such a disappearance would mark the first time the die-off of sea stars, more commonly referred to as starfish, has been identified and tracked over such a wide expanse of the West Coast.
An estimated less than 1 percent of the ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected by the wasting syndrome in April and only slightly more than that had been affected by mid-May.
Currently, about 30-50 percent of the Oregon purple ochra populations in the intertidal zone have the disease. It's believed the epidemic will only intensify over time and, at some sites, nearly 100 percent of the ochre sea stars could perish.
"This is an unprecedented event," said Bruce Menge, a marine biology professor with OSU's Department of Integrative Biology. "We've never seen anything of this magnitude before."
So far, scientists "have no clue what's causing this epidemic, how severe the damage might be or how long that damage might last," he said. "It's very serious. Some of the sea stars most heavily affected...influence the whole diversity of life in the intertidal zone."
Sea star wasting syndrome is a traumatic process in which, over the course of a week or less, the sea stars begin to lose legs, disintegrate, ultimately die, and rot.
The creatures often tear their bodies apart, their contorting arms pulling away and off from the body.
The afflicted stars die within a day, say USGS officials.
Scientists say they first detected the mass deaths among one star species, the sunflower starfish, last June.
Various epidemics of the syndrome have been noted in the past, but none to the current extent or severity.
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