Sunday, 4 May 2014

Starfish deaths off US coasts continue to puzzle scientists

Researchers rule out culprits including fungi and certain parasites, but remain vexed by unexplained wasting disease

theguardian.com, Friday 2 May 2014 15.08 BST

Scientists are struggling to find the cause of a disease that is killing off numerous species of starfish on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, dispatching the five-armed creatures in a particularly gruesome way.

Researchers said this week that they have ruled out some possible culprits including fungi, some parasites and certain other microorganisms and are taking a hard look at whether viruses or bacteria may be to blame.

The starfish, also called sea stars, are being obliterated by an unexplained wasting disease that causes white lesions to appear before the animal's body sags and ruptures and it spills out its internal organs.

"The magnitude of it is very concerning. There's the potential that some of these species could actually go extinct," said Cornell University ecologist Drew Harvell, one of the scientists involved in the loosely organised search for a cause.

Harvell said she is concerned because the mysterious pathogen is affecting 18 different west coast species along their entire range. Pathogens that affect an animal's range in such a way like a fungus that has targeted frogs can be particularly damaging, she said.

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