Quantcast

Massive Starfish Die-Off Linked to Warming Oceans

Climate

Starfish, otherwise known as sea stars, have been suffering the effects of a mysterious disease that has decimated their numbers in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The disease was first observed a few years ago and now scientists have found a link between its prevalence and warming waters.

Starfish, otherwise known as sea stars, have been suffering the effects of a mysterious disease that has decimated their numbers in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Photo credit: Thinkstock

The disease that has plagued them has become known as sea star wasting syndrome, which features a number of symptoms that eventually leads to them disintegrating into what’s been described as goo.

Unfortunately, since the latest outbreak was discovered in 2013 it’s impacted dozens of species and is believed to have killed millions of them. According to scientists, it wiped out 90 percent of some populations from Mexico to Alaska between 2013 and 2014.

While the disease has been linked to a fast-acting virus, according to a new study just published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, scientists have also linked sea stars’ risk of becoming infected with the disease to warmer temperatures for the first time.

The disease that has plagued them has become known as sea star wasting syndrome, which features a number of symptoms that eventually leads to them disintegrating into what’s been described as goo. Photo credit: Pete Garland / NOAA

For the study, a group of scientists from Cornell University’s Ecology of Infectious Marine Diseases Research Coordination Network focused on the ochre star in a lab setting and various locations around the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington.

“We were able to show warmer temperatures were related with the higher risk of disease,” said Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and a co-author of the study. “We suspected there was a temperature link, but we really needed to look at the field data to pull that out and we were able to back that up with lab experiments that found that in warmer temperatures, they died faster.”

Sea stars are beautiful and fascinating, but there are plenty of other reasons to want to save them. As a predator and keystone species, their presence keeps marine ecosystems healthy. It’s not entirely clear what will happen if whole populations continue to vanish, but their absence is already being felt in some places.

Scientists hope their work will lead to more clues about the disease and whether some survivors may have a resistance that can be used to help stop its spread.

While they are bringing attention to the plight of disappearing sea stars, they’re also raising concerns about how other species are being affected by diseases that are helped along with warmer temperatures. In a second study they examined how disease outbreaks were affected by temperatures that impact species including corals, turtles, bivalves, eelgrasses and lobsters, in addition to how threats could be mitigated.

“Advanced warning of the right conditions for disease allows marine managers to increase surveillance and implement preventive strategies, such as reducing pollution, boat traffic and transmission dangers,” said Harvell.

While scientists continue to look for solutions, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Washington and Cornell University have set up sites for the public to help with a little citizen science by reporting observations. More info on how to help can be found here and here.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Sustainability Management in Practice: Student Work Helps Establish Conservation Act in Palau

Horrible! This Guy Drags Shark From Sea Just to Pose for Photos

Solar-Powered Vacuum Could Suck Up 24,000 Tons of Ocean Plastic Every Year

Baby Dolphin Dies After Being Passed Around by Tourists Taking Selfies

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Rebecca Burgess came up with the idea of a fibersheds project to develop an eco-friendly, locally sourced wardrobe. Nicolás Boullosa / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

If I were to open my refrigerator, the origins of most of the food wouldn't be too much of a mystery — the milk, cheese and produce all come from relatively nearby farms. I can tell from the labels on other packaged goods if they're fair trade, non-GMO or organic.

Read More Show Less
A television crew reports on Hurricane Dorian while waves crash against the Banana River sea wall. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Some good news, for a change, about climate change: When hundreds of newsrooms focus their attention on the climate crisis, all at the same time, the public conversation about the problem gets better: more prominent, more informative, more urgent.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) met with Bill Gates on Nov. 7 to discuss climate change and ways to address the challenge. Senator Chris Coons

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan climate caucus started with just two members, a Republican from Indiana and a Democrat from Delaware. Now it's up to eight members after two Democrats, one Independent and three more Republicans joined the caucus last week, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less
EPA scientists survey aquatic life in Newport, Oregon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to significantly limit the use of science in agency rulemaking around public health, the The New York Times reports.

Read More Show Less
A timelapse video shows synthetic material and baby fish collected from a plankton sample from a surface slick taken off Hawaii's coast. Honolulu Star-Advertiser / YouTube screenshot

A team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn't intend to study plastic pollution when they towed a tiny mesh net through the waters off Hawaii's West Coast. Instead, they wanted to learn more about the habits of larval fish.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Two silver-backed chevrotain caught on camera trap. The species has only recently been rediscovered after being last seen in 1990. GWC / Mongabay

By Jeremy Hance

VIETNAM, July 2019 – I'm chasing a ghost, I think not for the first time, as night falls and I gather up my gear in a hotel in a village in southern Vietnam. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, and a poncho; outside the window I can see a light rain.

Read More Show Less
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 11, 2005. NOAA Photo Library / Lieut. Commander Mark Moran

The most destructive hurricanes are three times more frequent than they were a century ago, new research has found, and this can be "unequivocally" linked to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less