No matter where you are on the sea star/starfish naming debate, no one wants our starry friends to die horrifically. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening — a mysterious epidemic is causing the stars’ arms to crawl away from their bodies until they are literally torn apart. Dear God, please don’t let this be transferable to humans.
Baffled scientists are calling the disease “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome” for the degree and speed with which it demolishes the creatures’ bodies, essentially causing them to explode. SSWS has been decimating the populations of twelve different species of starfish along both coasts for several months now, with the highest concentration of combusting, disgusting occurrences recorded between Alaska and San Diego.
The horrific affliction causes the starfish’s arms to develop lesions, twist into knots, then, as Gawker describes it, “walk” away from the body until the limbs tear off. A healthy Starfish would likely be able to then regenerate its severed arms, but starfish with SSWS are too sick to regrow limbs, causing their intestines to spill out and killing them within twenty-four hours.
Underwater videographer Laura James was one of the first to alert scientists to the pandemic. She describes what she saw when she accidentally scuba’d into a mass starfish grave:
There were just bodies everywhere. There were just splats. It looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.
Not surprisingly, it seems we as a species may have played a part in unleashing this hellacious plague on innocent starfish (Weird, right? It’s not like we have any kind of background in decimating indigenous populations with horrible diseases). Scientists’ current theory is that SSWS is the result of a pathogen carried into the Pacific by a boat, which would make sense — the disease’s hotspots all lie along major shipping lines.
So what do mass starfish deaths mean to the future of their species and the oceans in general? Marine scientist Jeff Marliave of the Vancouver Aquarium says that in Vancouver, at least, they have starfish to spare. Their waters have been overrun by starfish for the last ten years, and Marliave hopes SSWS is just nature’s way of keeping their numbers in check. As he says, “this is probably the way that population is controlled in this group of animals.”
Not everyone is that optimistic. Ben Miner of Western Washington University says, “It certainly suggests that those ecosystems are not healthy. To have diseases that can affect that many species, that widespread is, I think is just scary.”
Miner’s worry comes from starfish being surprisingly high up on the food chain. As a predator that’s been known to grub on clams, mussels, oysters, and even other starfish, they are a keystone species who play a huge role in developing and maintaining the balance of the ocean ecosystem, and whose absence could cause huge ramifications.
In an effort to track a pandemic that scientists fear could continue to spread, Laura James encourages people who scuba dive and tweet (although hopefully not simultaneously) to alert scientists to the presence of SSWS by using the tag #sickstarfish.
In other social media starfish awareness news, editor Glen Tickle has made the above GIF to demonstrate our agony over the species’ plight. Use it as a tool to express how you, too, are being torn apart by all the starfish tearing themselves apart.
Come on, guys, keep yourselves together. You have so much lying around on rocks and docks to live for.
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