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Disease and warming seas are wiping out sea stars

Dying sea star
A dying sunflower sea star sits on the seafloor. (Ed Gullekson Photo via Science)

Warming oceans and an infectious wasting disease have combined to devastate what was once an abundant type of sea stars along the West Coast, scientists say in a newly published study.

The study, published today by the open-access journal Science Advances, provides fresh evidence for the climate-related decline of multiple species of sea stars, a class of marine invertebrates popularly known as starfish.

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Starfish die-off traced to virus plus warmer seas

Image: Sick Starfish
Sea star wasting disease can cause starfish to turn white, lose their limbs and disintegrate in a matter of days. (Credit: Kevin Lafferty / USGS)

The mass die-off of starfish off the West Coast is becoming a little less mysterious: Scientists say the starfish, also known as sea stars, fell prey to a one-two punch of virus infection plus unusually warm sea water.

The die-off started in 2013, reached a peak in 2014 and continued last year. Infected sea stars developed lesions that gradually dissolved the creatures from the outside, causing the arms to break away and leaving only whitened piles of starfish goop.

The outbreak has virtually wiped out ochre stars in the coastal waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula. More than 20 other species have suffered from Mexico all the way north to Alaska.

In a study published Feb. 15 by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists concentrated on what happened to the ochre stars. They already knew that the sea star wasting disease was linked to a densovirus – a pathogen that the scientists say apparently caused more limited outbreaks of the disease decades earlier. But what made the virus more virulent this time?

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