Starfish may be flexible, but they’re also tough. Yet a mysterious “wasting syndrome” is making starfish from Southern California to Alaska decay while still alive. Populations are being decimated up and down the west coast.
The LA Times reports that the disease starts as a single sore and then progresses as the wound becomes infected, degrading one limb at a time over a few days. Similar wasting diseases have spread through starfish populations before once in the 80s and once in the 90s, but both of those incidents took place in warm water during El Niño and 2013 is not an El Niño year. UC Santa Cruz researcher Pete Raimondi gave this, shall we say, colourful description of the disease:
Imagine a wound on your finger that you never treated. The bacteria would continue to build up and just eat away the flesh until it fell off. That’s how this disease goes.
Scientists are embarking on major data collection trips up and down the coast to observe and try to get a handle on what’s happening. There isn’t major concern so far that the coastal starfish will be totally wiped out, and there seems to be hope that they can repopulate. But in the meantime their reduced numbers may allow mussels to multiply, since starfish prey on mussels. Tide pool politics getting intense. [LA Times]