Scientists are struggling in a race against time to find what’s causing a disease that’s been killing thousands of starfish since last year – resulting in gruesome deaths that physically tear and melt their bodies apart.
Starfish – or more accurately sea stars – are being obliterated on both sides of the North American coast by an unexplained disease that causes white lesions to appear before the animal’s body sags and ruptures and it spills out its internal organs. In some cases, the starfish's arms rip themselves from the rest of the body. In the end, the starfish 'melts' into a slimy gooey substance.
A time-lapse video uploaded by Vancouver Aquarium in November last year of an infected starfish ripping itself apart shocked viewers by how fast it killed. In just seven hours, the starfish was in pieces.
The disease, referred to as ‘sea star wasting disease’, first appeared last year and is showing no indication of abating. So far, the mysterious killer has been decimating 18 different species along their entire range on the North American Pacific Coast.
With a mortality rate as high as 95%, entire starfish populations from as far north as Alaska to Southern California and Mexico have been wiped out. The disease has also been spotted on the East Coast but deaths there have been less staggering.
“The magnitude of it is very concerning. There’s the potential that some of these species could actually go extinct,” said Cornell University ecologist Drew Harvell, one of the scientists involved in the loosely organised search for a cause.