Something is killing starfish; scientists race to find out what

Feb 05, 2014
Magnificent star, a member of Paxillosida. Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

Up and down the West Coast, starfish are dying.

Casualties of a mysterious disease known as seastar wasting syndrome, they are dying in Alaska, deteriorating in San Diego and disappearing from long stretches in between.

Death from the disease is quick and not pretty. It begins with a small lesion on a 's body that rapidly develops into an infection the animal cannot fight.

Over the course of the disease the starfish's legs might drop off, or even separate from the body and start to crawl away.

Pete Raimondi, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has been tracking the seastar crisis, said a starfish's leg moving away from its central disk is akin to a lizard's tail continuing to wriggle even after it has snapped off the lizard's body.

"Starfish don't have a central nervous system, so it's not like if you chopped off your arm," he said. "The arms can still be mobile and operate on their own for a period of time - longer than you think."

The seastar wasting epidemic was first observed last summer. Some wondered whether radiation that leaked into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan might be the cause.

"I think it is almost entirely impossible to be related to Fukushima," Raimondi told the Los Angeles Times. "We haven't ruled it out, but there are so many more likely things going on. And there is no evidence that radiation has gotten to California."

A more likely culprit is a pathogen. Either a virus, parasite or bacteria infects the animal and compromises the immune system, which leads to a that ultimately kills the animal.

Raimondi said it shouldn't be long before scientists isolated the responsible pathogen. "We should know pretty soon," he said.

Explore further: Mass sea star deaths off US west coast puzzle scientists

3 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Seeing starfish: The missing link in eye evolution?

Jul 04, 2013

A study has shown for the first time that starfish use primitive eyes at the tip of their arms to visually navigate their environment. Research headed by Dr. Anders Garm at the Marine Biological Section of ...

Recommended for you

Japan lawmakers demand continued whaling

16 hours ago

Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday demanded the government redesign its "research" whaling programme to circumvent an international court ruling that described the programme as a commercial hunt dressed up as ...

EU must take urgent action on invasive species

20 hours ago

The EU must take urgent action to halt the spread of invasive species that are threatening native plants and animals across Europe, according to a scientist from Queen's University Belfast.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

More vets turn to prosthetics to help legless pets

A 9-month-old boxer pup named Duncan barreled down a beach in Oregon, running full tilt on soft sand into YouTube history and showing more than 4 million viewers that he can revel in a good romp despite lacking ...

Robotics goes micro-scale

(Phys.org) —The development of light-driven 'micro-robots' that can autonomously investigate and manipulate the nano-scale environment in a microscope comes a step closer, thanks to new research from the ...