A mystery in the waters along the East Coast—and the West: Starfish are deteriorating, shedding limbs and ending up as "goo piles," which is the actual term used by a taxonomist with the Vancouver Aquarium. "That's as technical as it gets right now," she tells NBC News. Researchers haven't figured out what's causing the disintegration, but they are able to describe it: First a lesion surfaces on a starfish's arm; the arm is shed and should grow back—but it doesn't. Those with what's being called "sea star wasting syndrome" instead remain stuck with an open wound. In a matter of days, the remaining flesh weakens and essentially melts away.
Starfish "die-offs" are somewhat typical and have been recorded near California in 1983 and 1997. On the East Coast, starfish started dying off in 2010. "A year after that we started seeing animals that have been exhibiting this 'wasting disease.' It appears to have [been] developing over the past few years," says a professor studying the disease. What's unusual in this case is the speed: The problem was first noticed on the West Coast last month, and "now there's just a bunch of goo left," says the taxonomist. The most likely culprit: a bacterium or virus, possibly coupled with an environmental stressor like a change in the ocean temperature. As Salon explained earlier this month, such die-offs typically occur when the starfish population gets too high, but this time around researchers fear sea stars could end up killed off entirely. (Click for another depressing ocean story, this one involving barnacles.)