They’re not fish but they’re definitely stars, both in shape and in popularity. Starfish should more properly be called sea stars because they’re not fish but echinoderms in the same family as sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers. They date back at least 450 million years to the Ordovician period but that long history may be coming to an end as sea stars on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. are being quickly wiped out by a mysterious illness.
The problem seemed to appear suddenly in 2013 and the cause is so far unknown. Sea stars are suffering gruesome deaths in record numbers due to a wasting disease that causes white lesions on their body. Soon, their arms can become limp and fall off, then the body erupts and its organs spill out, killing the creature.
A recent report in Science offers no good news. The pathogen has affected 18 different sea star species on the west coast alone. Researchers have ruled out most fungi, some parasites and some types of bacteria. That means it could be a virus for which there is no recourse. Questions still to be answered - why did this disease appear so suddenly? Is it homegrown or was it brought here? Is its cause man-made – possibly from pollutants?
As with any possible extinction – and that’s the warning from scientists - there’s concern for the animals that eat sea stars – will the disease affect them? Sea stars are considered to be predators, so their disappearance can have a significant impact in the ecosystems on both coasts.
Concern is rising and the small team of scientists looking into the mysterious disease is growing. Let’s hope for the sea stars – and for us – a solution can be found.