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Virulent disease kills scores of sea stars

A mysterious illness that first appeared in June in Washington state has now spread from Sitka, Alaska, to San Diego. The disease spread with astonishing speed — a healthy group of starfish can die in just 24 hours.
Neal McDaniel
Sea stars are under attack by an unknown wasting disease and are dying in large numbers off the nation’s eastern and western coasts.
The progression is predictable: white lesions appear on an animal and become infected. Within hours or days the sea star becomes limp, and its arms may fall off. Necrosis eventually takes over and the animal dies.

These kinds of events are sentinels of change. When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on

—Drew Harvell, professor, Cornell University

Predatory species were the first to succumb, but now the mysterious ailment is appearing in species once thought to be resistant to its effects.

Researchers believe the sea stars' actual disintegration and death is caused by bacterial infection, but they have no idea what's suddenly making them susceptible.

The cause could be a toxins, a virus, bacteria, manmade chemicals, ocean acidification, wastewater discharge or warming oceans.

Unknown reasons
Whatever is killing the sea stars is highly lethal. "We've had populations go locally extinct overnight. Literally. Some species go from completely fine to a mush ball in 24 hours," said Benjamin Miner, a professor of marine biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. , who's organizing the mapping project.

The fact that the ailment is so widespread is what's most troubling, MIner said "Every time you come up with what seems like a reasonable hypothesis, it's challenged because other affected places don't match."


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