Starfish Ripping Off Own Arms

Reports of 'sea star wasting syndrome' get more disturbing

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted Feb 3, 2014 12:50 PM CST | Updated Feb 3, 2014 1:50 PM CST

(Newser) – Scientists are still trying to figure out why starfish are dying in massive numbers, turning into what one taxonomist described as "goo piles." The latest news on the die-off is similarly disturbing: One biology professor studied sea stars suffering from what is being called "sea star wasting syndrome," and he tells PBS the starfish first twist their arms into knots, then literally "[start] ripping themselves apart," he says. "The arms just crawl away from the particular body," crawling in opposite directions until they tear off; the sea star's insides then pour out, and the arms never regenerate, as they would in a healthy starfish.

But scientists still don't know what's behind the deaths, tens of thousands of which have been reported up and down the West Coast as well as along parts of the East Coast. All sorts of theories have been advanced, Jefferson Public Radio reports: low oxygen levels, environmental toxins from local runoff, even radiation or tsunami debris from the Fukushima disaster. Scientists see all of those as unlikely suspects, though, since a larger variety of sea life and a wider range of locations would have been impacted. Other potential culprits include climate change, ocean acidification, or a foreign pathogen that came in on a ship. New experiments are looking into the possibility of infectious agents, and scientists are hoping to have an answer within a few months.

This undated photo released by the Rocky Intertidal Lab at the University of California-Santa Cruz shows a starfish suffering from sea star wasting disease.
This undated photo released by the Rocky Intertidal Lab at the University of California-Santa Cruz shows a starfish suffering from "sea star wasting disease."   (AP Photo/Laura Anderson, Rocky Intertidal Lab UC Santa Cruz)
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