A sunflower starfish is seen in Neah Bay, Wash. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of California Davis, Janna Nichols)

Once-populous starfish disappearing due to warm water and disease

Disease hitting sunflower sea stars is like a ‘zombie apocalypse’

Warm waters and infectious disease have been determined as the causes of a die-off of sunflower starfish along the Pacific coast, says a newly released study.

Sunflower sea stars are among the largest starfish in the world and come in a variety of bright colours, including purple and orange. Some of them grow to more than a metre long and are so quick they “literally run across the seascape,” said Joseph Gaydos, the senior author of the study.

“But when this disease happens, it’s like a zombie apocalypse,” said Gaydos, who’s with the SeaDoc Society out of the University of California, Davis.

“It can have 24 arms and all of a sudden it’s walking around and its arms are just falling off. And then all of a sudden the whole body just seems to melt.”

So, what used to be a “big, beautiful sea star,” and weighed about five kilograms resembles a pile of calcified parts within days, he said.

“It’s just a really ugly and fast disease for these sunflower sea stars.”

READ MORE: Your laundry could be hurting the oceans, study finds

In 2013, scientists began noticing populations of the species declining between 80 and 100 per cent in deep and shallow waters from Alaska and B.C. right down to California. The population information was collected by scuba divers and deep trawls.

Sunflower sea stars are found in waters from hundreds of metres to just three metres.

Diego Montecino-Latorre, a study co-author, and also from the University of California, Davis, said scientists found an association between increased water temperature and seeing fewer sea stars.

Gaydos said the temperature increases of the water were not the same in all areas.

Oceans are “not like a bathtub” with consistent temperatures throughout, he said, adding that some places in California saw an increase of about 4 C while places in Washington noted an increase of 2.5 C.

One of the theories put forward by scientists is that an increase in temperature makes the sea stars more susceptible to the disease that was already present, especially since sea stars don’t have complex immune systems, he said.

Gaydos said the die-off is a wake-up call.

“It’s hard to keep an eye on what’s happening in the ocean but we need to pay attention because this happened over a very short period of time,” he said. “To have a whole species almost disappear, that’s not good.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

UPDATE: Plane flips over at Pitt Meadows airport

Runway closed for an undetermined length of time.

UPDATE: Names keep adding to vaccine petition

Maple Ridge mom started campaign to make vaccination a condition of attending school

Pets: Decrease in surplus, homeless animals

New five-year plan for SPCA.

Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigns amid SNC-Lavalin furor

Butts categorically denies the accusation that he or anyone else in the PMO improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould

VIDEO: Winterhawks end Giants winning streak at seven

Playing on home ice, Vancouver’s G-Men fell 5-3 during a Family Day game against Portland.

Aaron Pritchett and George Canyon to headline Gone Country concert in Cloverdale this summer

‘Early bird tickets on sale via Twins Cancer Fundraising website

Lost a ring? This B.C. man will find it for you

Chris Turner founded The Ring Finders, an international directory of metal detector hobbyists

Poverty coalition has high hopes for B.C. poverty reduction strategy

Funding allocation expected to be released with 2019 budget

‘How did we get here?’: B.C. mom of transplant recipient worries about measles outbreaks

Addison, 7, cannot get a live vaccine because she has a heart transplant

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calls for public inquiry over SNC-Lavalin questions

Vancouver member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet last week

Canadian airlines waiting for guidance from Ottawa over X gender option

Major U.S. airlines said they will change their process so passengers can identify themselves along non-binary lines

Moose Hide campaign takes message to Canadian schools

Campaign launches new K-12 education platform

Most Read