Starfish Tearing Themselves Apart

Scientists baffled by terrifying mass death

Feb 3, 2014
Outside Magazine
starfish deaths die off sun fish pathogen arms

   Wikimedia Commons

Mystery animal die-offs are always disturbing, but starfish in the Pacific Ocean are taking it to another level with a zombie-like affliction that's causing their bodies to deteriorate and their arms to literally pull themselves out and crawl away.

The mass deaths began in June and are being attributed to what researchers are calling "sea star wasting syndrome." Afflicted starfish first begin to develop lesions on their bodies, followed by strange contortions of the arms. The arms then begin crawling in opposite directions until they tear off. The starfish dies a short time later.

The disease has afflicted a dozen species of starfish, and the mortality rate is estimated at 95 percent. Entire populations have already been wiped out in several areas along the West Coast; some cases are now being reported on the East Coast as well.

Diver Laura James was one of the first to notice dead starfish washing up on the beaches and spoke to PBS about what she saw when she plunged into the depths to investigate.

There were just bodies everywhere. And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.

Scientists are now scrambling to find the root of the disease and, if possible, to put a stop to it before the marine ecosystem is damaged beyond repair. The current theory is that the starfish are being afflicted by a pathogen that shuts down their immune system, leaving them vulnerable to secondary infections. How the pathogen arrived in American waters is a mystery, but it's possible that it came over in the ballast water of foreign ships, which would explain why many of the die-offs have occurred along major shipping routes.

Watch PBS's feature report on the phenomenon below.

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