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

North Island resident to campaign on climate, economy for Liberal Party seat in Ottawa

Peter Schwarzhoff joins race for the second time in North Island-Powell River riding

Press release: Port Alice Health Centre service model announced

“a sustainable and dependable model of health care service delivery in Port Alice is a priority”

First annual Pride Day coming to Port Hardy in August

Pride contributes to a more inclusive and safe community for LGBTQ+ identifying individuals.

Blaney plan helps seniors late with taxes

Simple solution to important issue: North Island-Powell River MP

North Island resident to campaign on climate, economy for Liberal Party seat in Ottawa

Peter Schwarzhoff joins race for the second time in North Island-Powell River riding

Kelowna RCMP interrogation video brings home reality in ‘visceral way’: former TRC chairman

Video of Mountie interrogating young Indigenous woman disclosing sexual abuse under fire

Update: Mother dead, child in critical condition after carbon monoxide poisoning at Shuswap campground

The woman was found unresponsive insider her tent and the youth was taken via air ambulance to hospital

Canada’s parole officers say correctional system has reached breaking point

About half of Canada’s federal parole officers work inside penitentiaries and correctional institutions

Montreal researchers create audible hockey puck for visually impaired players

Three years ago, Gilles Ouellet came up with the idea for a puck that makes a continuous sound

Vancouver Island MusicFest: ‘House bands’ from the golden age of rock and R&B

Some of America’s greatest session musicians are coming to the Comox Valley this summer

Former B.C. Greyhound bus drivers head to Penticton for goodbye party

Big bash runs until Sunday, funded by drink cans left behind on busses over the years

Boy, 12, arrested after allegedly pulling a knife on another child at a Surrey park

The child was later released into his parents’ custody as Surrey RCMP continue their investigation

Full-scale search underway for missing kayaker on Okanagan Lake

Kelowna Paddle Centre member Zygmunt Janiewicz, 71, failed to return from his ‘daily kayak’ on the lake

Bucks hammer Raptors 125-103 to take 2-0 playoff series lead

Toronto heads home in a hole after second loss to Milwaukee

Most Read