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

Quesnel Kangaroos take round one of playoffs versus Williams Lake

The Roos prevailed 6-4 in an exciting home game over their long time foes.

Educational Family Day fun at the Quesnel Museum and Archives

The museum provided games, scavenger hunts, snacks, a dress-up chest and free admission

Province announces $100-million grant funding for Northwest communities

The Northern Capital and Planning Grant will go to four regional districts and 22 municipalities

Quesnel ringette player excited to help Team B.C.

Katie Young will play centre for the squad at 2019 Canada Winter Games

Mermen calendar targets ‘toxic masculinity,’ raises big money for charities

Newfoundland and Labrador Beard and Moustache Club gave a cheque for more than $202,000 to Violence Prevention NL

Minister says plans to fight poverty, climate change, focus of B.C. budget

The NDP said in its throne speech last week that affordability will be the hallmark of its initiatives

UPDATED: ‘Violent’ B.C. man back in custody after Alberta arrest

Prince George man with ties to Vernon was being sought by police

After a week away, SNC-Lavalin questions await MPs returning to Parliament

Two have resigned already: Jody Wilson-Raybould was veterans affairs minister and Gerald Butts was Trudeau’s principal secretary

‘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

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

Funding allocation expected to be released with 2019 budget

Chanel: Iconic couturier Karl Lagerfeld has died

He spent virtually his entire career at luxury labels catering to the very wealthy

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

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

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

Most Read