Earth News Journal 30: Starfish Disease

Along the American West Coast, thousands if not millions of starfish have been affected by an unknown pathogen wreaking havoc on these essential aquatic creatures, according to a San Francisco Reuters article published in early November 2013.

Marine biologists and ecologists of the area are deeming this deadly conundrum “star wasting disease,” with no “obvious culprit for the root cause,” according to Pete Raimondi, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Lab.

Since June of 2013, affected sea stars have been found in countless coastal sites along the entire coast, including southeast Alaska and Orange County, California. The unknown pathogen sprouts in the arms of sea stars, appearing as white lesions that spread inward at an extremely rapid rate. Within a week, the sea creatures lose all limbs, disintegrating into a slime-like substance, as reported by the Pacific Rock Intertidal Monitoring Program.

“Their tissue just melts away,” remarked Melissa Miner, a biologist and researcher with the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network, a group of government agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations that monitor tidal wildlife and environment along the U.S. West Coast.

No stranger to the slime spell, starfish have suffered from this disease periodically over the course of U.S. tidal monitoring, although the wasting has never spanned the entire coastline, nor has it lasted as long as six months.

Unfortunately for these delicate, bio-diverse organisms, the onslaught of disease has “ballooned into a much bigger issue since” the first account of wasting. At least 10 different species of sea stars have shown signs of the star wasting disease since early summer, but the Pisaster ochraceus, a large, mussel-eating starfish tinted purple and orange, has been the disease’s primary target.

Without these starfish in American tidal pools, mussel populations could inflate to a dangerously disastrous extreme, compromising the region’s fragile biodiversity. In the following months, scientists across the coast will continue to monitor local tidal pools for signs of wasting, while relying on an interactive map to spot starfish wasting location patterns. These efforts will hopefully enlighten marine biologists as to the true identity of the sea star wasting culprit.

Reflection

Hearing of an unidentified disease currently annihilating a specific aquatic species is both frightening and troubling. Through the education of ecosystems and biomes this past semester, I fully understand that individual species, populations, and communities greatly impact one another and the habitat as a whole. Because of the recent disappearance of honey bees across the North American continent, insufficient pollination has failed to fertilize crops from Florida, California, and Maine. A bee shortage does not merely limit the supply of commercial honey, but also the entire floral vegetation and crops that once thrived in the region. Bees contribute to approximately 1/3 of all human food consumption – they are vastly important to human life. If starfish disappeared from the western coast, I can only imagine the biodiversity of the region would greatly suffer, leaving untold consequences in the wake of such starfish disintegration.

Kearney, Laila. “Mysterious Disease Turns Starfish to ‘Slime’ on U.S. West Coast.” Reuters. N.p., 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2014.

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