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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cannabis edibiles facility rezoning application approved for CRD final reading

The new use of the property, building would see the manufacturing of cannabis infused chocolates

Quesnel rescue group offers feral felines a second chance

Dunphy’s latest cat capers have taken her to the Quesnel landfill

B.C. First Nation breaks ground on $4.5 million gas bar in the Chilcotin

Chilcotin River Trading at Tl’etinqox will feature a grocery store, café and more

Several Quesnel area governments work toward forming community forest agreement

At the June 24 meeting, participants shared their visions and aspirations for a CFA

Witnesses sought in Quesnel River Bridge hit and run

The damage to the bridge is estimated to be over $30,000

21 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in B.C. as virus ‘silently circulates’ in broader community

Health officials urge British Columbians to enjoy summer safely as surge continues

Tough time for tree fruits as some B.C. farm products soar

Province reports record 2019 sales, largely due to cannabis

Northern Indigenous cannabis cultivation facility to supply over 60 private B.C. stores

Construction to soon resume on Nations Cannabis in Burns Lake

‘Let’s all do a self-check’: Okanagan mayor reacts to racist vandalism targeting local family

Home of Indo-Canadian family in Summerland was targeted on evening of July 13

Province agrees to multimillion-dollar payout for alleged victims of Kelowna social worker

Robert Riley Saunders is accused of misappropriating funds of children — often Indigenous — in his care

B.C. businessman David Sidoo gets 3 months behind bars for college admissions scam

Sidoo was sentenced for hiring someone take the SATs in place of his two sons

PHOTOS: Inside a newly-listed $22M mega-mansion on ALR land in B.C.

The large home, located on ALR land, is one of the last new mansions to legally be built on ALR land

Thousands of dollars in stolen rice found in B.C. warehouse

Police raid seizes $75,000 in ‘commercial scale’ theft case

COVID-19 gives B.C. First Nation rare chance to examine tourism’s impact on grizzly bears

With 40 infrared cameras deployed in Kitasoo-Xai’Xais territory, research will help develop tourism plan with least impact on bears

Most Read