For the last few years we have been reading reports of mass starfish die-offs along the West coast of America and Canada. Whilst we read horror stories of a mysterious wasting disease which had seemingly come from nowhere and decimated population after population of starfish, it seems that the cause may have been more anthropogenic after all.
Researchers have just published their work in the Royal Society B journal linking the die-offs with warming ocean temperatures. They claim that the warmer temperatures are increasing species risk of becoming infected with disease.
Sea star wasting syndrome has become a common sight along the West coast of America, as it literally turns dozens of species of starfish into no more than goo. Between 2013-2014, one of the most commonly found species, the ochre star suffered catastrophically from the wasting disease and 90% of the population was lost on the Northern Pacific Coast of America. An increase in disease is not just limited to starfish, as there have been increasing levels of shell disease in lobsters off the coast of New England.
At the time of the outbreaks, they happened so suddenly that by the time people knew about them they were already almost over. However scientists now think that there may be a benign virus in starfish that could become active with warmer temperatures. When San Juan Island experienced a mass die-off event of starfish, it was also experiencing strangely high water temperatures around the island. When warmer sea temperatures were recreated in lab conditions it was found that starfish would succumb to the disease more quickly.
If warming temperatures are to blame for these mass die-offs it could spell an ecosystem disaster in some areas. Starfish are a keystone species and predator thus play a vital role in maintaining the health of an ecosystem, but scientists are unsure what impact it may have if they continue to disappear in huge numbers.
Featured Image by Jonathan Martin
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