Why Are Starfish Literally Tearing Themselves Apart?

Originally published on February 4, 2014, at TravelersToday.com

Millions of starfish are mysteriously mutilating themselves along the Pacific Coast. Dubbed sea star wasting syndrome, this idiopathic disorder causes the arms of a starfish to writhe and contort until finally ripping themselves apart from their body spilling their innards. Although starfish can usually regenerate lost limbs, infected starfish are too sick to grow their arms back.

From Anchorage to San Diego, starfish carcasses litter the ocean floor in an unprecedented epidemic. Scientists from Cornell, the University of Washington and UC Santa Cruz are researching possible origins of the syndrome that has spread across at least 12 species of starfish.

Ben Miner, a biology professor at Western Washington University, has been conducting infectiousness experiments to study contagion rates along with the progress of the disease. Placing healthy starfish into tanks with afflicted starfish, he noted all of the starfish exhibiting signs of sickness died within 24 hours. Prof. Miner stated, “To have diseases that can affect that many species, that widespread is, I think, just scary.”

Although the cause of the syndrome remains unknown, scientists have been searching for a catalyst that must be viral, bacterial or parasitic in origin. Other theories include possible environmental toxins, ocean acidification, climate change, an infectious pathogen carried by transpacific merchant vessels or the lowered oxygen levels in the ocean water.

Scientists first began documenting cases of sea star wasting syndrome last summer on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Diver and underwater videographer, Laura James, was one of the first to record the mutilated bodies. “This is the change of my lifetime,” James admitted. “We have had now occasional die-offs here and there, but it’s not like this…not a mass mortality event.”

James along with fellow diver Lamont Granquist have recently created a website for tracking photos of sick starfish to social media sites. Photos with the hashtag #SickStarfish are automatically uploaded to their map and shared with scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

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