Sunday, 3 May 2015

Scores of starfish suffer mysterious and gruesome demise along west coast

The cause of the most deadly sea star epidemic in recorded history remains unclear, but experts believe it may be a poorly understood ‘wasting’ disease

Brent Crane

Sunday 3 May 2015 15.04 BST

It is a gruesome death. First the legs shrivel up, followed by lesions. Then the legs inch away and finally detach. The victim continues to deteriorate until it is nothing but a plot of sticky goo.

This is the thoroughly unpleasant way by which scores of sea stars, also known as starfish, have perished along the North American west coast in the most deadly epidemic to hit the iconic echinoderms in recorded history.

From southern Alaska down to Baja California, sea stars have been dying in droves. The culprit, it is suspected, is a little-understood “wasting” disease known as “sea star-associated densovirus”, or SSaDV.

“It is unprecedented,” says Richard Ambrose, a marine biologist at UCLA. “It’s a really extensive decline of a really important component of rocky tidal and subtidal communities along the whole west coast. It’s pretty serious.”

While this is not the first time sea stars have been hit by a mass wasting event –similar die-offs occurred in the 70s and late 90s, and their cause remains unknown – it is by far the most destructive, extensive and perplexing. First observed in Washington state in June 2013, the disease has gradually spread up and down the coast.

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