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Starfish Make Comeback After Mysterious Melting Disease

Animals
Ochre sea stars D. Gordon E. Robertson / CC BY-SA 3.0

Starfish appear to be making a stunning comeback in the West Coast after a mysterious "melting" disease decimated their numbers five years ago.

The invertebrates that survived the die-off developed a genetic resistance protecting them from the pathogen, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found.


The disease that plagued them, also known as sea star wasting syndrome, featured grisly symptoms where the sea stars would lose legs, disintegrate and ultimately die. The outbreak was first discovered in 2013 and eventually caused the death of millions of sea stars in the West Coast.

The species most heavily affected by the disease was the Pisaster ochraceus, or ochre star. More than 80 percent fell victim to the pathogen. As a "keystone" predator, its loss could have disrupted the entire marine intertidal ecosystem.

The leg of this purple ochre sea star in Oregon is disintegrating, as it dies from sea star wasting syndrome. Photo taken in May 2014Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman/ Oregon State University / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

But the new study revealed a 74-fold increase since 2013 in the number of surviving offspring of the ochre star, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The researchers compared the DNA of ochre stars before and after the outbreak and found that the juveniles thriving today have developed a gene that resists the virus.

"This revealed consistent changes between the original population and survivors, between the original population and new juveniles, and across geographic locations," Lauren Schiebelhut, a University of California, Merced biologist and lead author of the study, told the Chronicle. "Subsequent generations will be the progeny of survivors and so we expect the genetic shift to be maintained."

The cause of sea star wasting syndrome is still not known, but previous studies have linked the sea stars' risk of becoming infected with the disease due to warmer ocean temperatures. Notably, the current study brings hope that some marine species could quickly evolve resilience to the effects of climate change.

The starfish that survived the epidemic are living examples of natural selection in process, as Michael Dawson, a UC Merced professor and co-author of the study, explained to the Chronicle.

"That ochre sea stars had the capacity to adapt to events as dramatic as this is remarkable, and perhaps re-assuring that future climate change may be withstood by some species," Dawson added. "But the ochre sea star is perhaps a species with greater resilience than many, and with projected climate swings expected to be more extreme, the ochre sea star's resilience is perhaps a small, distant bright light on a pretty stormy sea."

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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