Mysterious Disease Turns Starfish Into Goo

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

starfishMother Nature takes some of what she dishes out — while she unleashes monster typhoons, her creatures also take a beating. The latest to be ravaged are starfish, who have been dying in droves due to a mysterious disease.

I tend to think of starfish as virtually indestructible — I mean, you can pull off one of their legs and they’ll grow it back. But not if they contract a sea star wasting syndrome that is killing them off in record numbers. The disease causes the growth of white lesions on a starfish’s limbs, which soon after waste away to the extent that they turn into goo. Scientists don’t know what’s causing the disease or its spread. In 1983-1984, a starfish wasting disease killed off a bunch of the creatures, but in that case it was linked to global warming and El Nino. Given that it’s not an El Nino year, scientists this time think the culprit is a bacteria that can be transmitted between species, and that starfish with open wounds are particularly vulnerable. It sounds kind of like a flesh-eating bacteria for starfish, though it’s also possible that the disease is a result of a virus.

starfish disease

Scientists estimate that the disease has wiped out a staggering 95% of starfish in some West Coast tide pools. Starfish that appear to be suffering from the same disease have been observed from Alaska to Southern California in a scale never before seen, as well as in some spots from Maine to New Jersey on the East Coast. Researchers are trying to get more data on the disease, but they’re troubled that it appears on both coasts, and they aren’t sure how a pathogen would manage that kind of range.

While researchers don’t think the disease will infect other marine life, the drastic reduction in starfish numbers will. Starfish are a “keystone” species, which means that they’re fundamental to the ocean ecosystem. A previous decrease in a particular type of starfish on the West Coast triggered an overgrowth of mussels, the favorite prey of the starfish. When certain animal populations inflate suddenly, ripples both predictable and unexpected can result. There will also be fluctuations in the composition of the sea floor and in the water itself, potentially leaving behind too many nutrients, which could cause a suffocating proliferation of algae. Whatever the effects, as a Smithsonian zoologist puts it, “A change in community structure can always have unpredictable effects.”

starfish disease

I guess the upside is that scientists will have the chance to study just how important starfish are to the ocean ecosystem, and how resilient the ecosystem is in the wake of whatever’s happening to the sea creatures. If nothing else, we can all rest assured that if there are zombie starfish down there, Mother Nature will fix it.