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Mystery Disease Killing Off Starfish, Santa Cruz Researchers are Puzzled

By Cassandra Arsenault, Reporter, CassandraArsenault@kionrightnow.com
Published On: Dec 20 2013 01:02:14 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 20 2013 06:57:06 PM CST

A disease that is causing starfish, also known as sea stars, to dissolve has left researchers with more questions than answers.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -

A disease that is causing starfish, also known as sea stars, to dissolve has left researchers with more questions than answers.

Central Coast News reported on the sea star wasting disease a few months ago when University of California Santa Cruz researchers found that the sea stars' body parts were falling off.

The group of local researchers who have been circling the ocean floor to find out what's killing them still does not have any conclusive answers.

Pete Raimondi, marine biologist at Long Marine Laboratory and a professor of ecology at the University of California Santa Cruz says he's never seen a wasting disease of this scale.

"Most of the sea stars we were tracking in tide pools in Monterey were dead by the time we finished," said Raimondi.

The sea stars are disappearing every day because of some mystery killer, but Raimondi said, "It looks like it's fatality by bacterial infections in the sea stars' tissue."

In some cases tide pools that had hundreds of starfish a few months ago now have zero because of the wasting disease.

Two junior specialists at Long Marine Laboratory, Emily Tucker and Hannah Specklin, in conjunction with the Monterey Marine Sanctuary, are going to tide pools in the Northern Central Coast to study the lethal disease.

The immediate threat is that if there are no more starfish, then there could be an increase in mussels. "With an overpopulation of mussels the rest of the organisms in the tide pools might not have enough habitat to live in," says Emily Tucker.

Raimondi's research group did find that some stars like Bat Stars and Blood Stars were unaffected by the disease, but researchers still can't conclusively say why.

Wasting diseases have popped up many times before, "but typically they are associated with warm water trends and that's not the cause this time,"says Raimondi, "no other disease is as catastrophic as this one."

They have seen this disease in sea stars from Alaska all the way to Santa Barbara, and it's continuing to spread.

University of California Santa Cruz biologists are collecting samples up and down the coast from Washing to California. They are mostly looking for marine bio-toxins and viruses, and are exploring a variety of possible sources.