Marine scientists track spread of sea star wasting disease

November 6, 2013 by Tim Stephens
Marine scientists track spread of sea star wasting disease
Tissue is disintegrating on two arms of this sea star affected by sea star wasting syndrome. Credit: Melissa Miner

( —A mysterious disease that causes sea stars to decay and fall apart within a few days has become widespread along the U.S. west coast over the past several months. First reported off the coast of Washington in June, the disease known as "sea star wasting syndrome" has now been observed as far north as southeast Alaska and as far south as Orange County, California.

Pete Raimondi, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, leads the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Program, which has been documenting the disease at the group's long-term monitoring sites along the west coast and collecting reports from other scientists and citizens. According to Raimondi, small outbreaks of the disease have been observed for decades, but this one is particularly troubling because it is so widespread.

"We've never seen it at this scale up and down the coast," he said.

The disease has even hit sea stars in public aquariums that draw water from the ocean for their tanks, including UCSC's Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab, the Vancouver Aquarium, and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary visitor center.

Raimondi said citizens can help by reporting observations of the disease on his group's Sea Star Wasting Syndrome web site. The site includes detailed descriptions of the disease, photographs, maps, regular updates, and instructions for tracking and documenting observations.

The cause of the disease is still unknown. Researchers think it is caused by a bacterial or viral pathogen, and several groups are working to identify the specific pathogen. Past outbreaks have been associated with warmer than normal water temperatures, but that does not seem to be the case this time, Raimondi said.

Marine scientists track spread of sea star wasting disease
This sea star has lost most of its arms to wasting disease. Credit: Melissa Miner

The syndrome has been reported at several sites around Monterey Bay, including sites in Santa Cruz and Monterey. It has also been reported on the U.S. east coast. At least ten species of sea stars are known to be affected by the disease. The hardest hit species on the west coast is Pisaster ochraceus, a large, common, purple-and-orange that preys on mussels.

While concern about the disease has been building in the scientific community since early summer, it has only recently begun to garner widespread media attention. Raimondi said he has done nearly a dozen interviews within the past few days, including a television interview at Long Marine Lab broadcast on NBC Bay Area.

Explore further: Elevated water temperature and acidity boost growth of key sea star species

Related Stories

California's sea otter numbers continue slow climb

September 13, 2013

California sea otter numbers are up, according to the latest population survey led by federal, state, and UC Santa Cruz scientists. The reasons: more pups and the addition of San Nicolas Island sea otters to the population ...

Recommended for you

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

Insect DNA extracted, sequenced from black widow spider web

November 25, 2015

Scientists extracted DNA from spider webs to identify the web's spider architect and the prey that crossed it, according to this proof-of-concept study published November 25, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Charles ...

How cells in the developing ear 'practice' hearing

November 25, 2015

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.