"This thing was as common as a robin," Cornell's Drew Harvell tells the Atlantic of the sunflower sea star. No more. The creature that once thrived off the West Coast was decimated along with other starfish species by a disease that surfaced with a vengeance around 2013. Scientists previously figured out that a virus was to blame, and a new study in Science Advances helps explain how it turned so lethal. The main villain: warming ocean waters. Harvell and her team found a correlation between unusually warm ocean temperatures around that time and the plunge in starfish numbers, reports the New York Times. Think of it as a "one-two punch," explains Smithsonian: The warmer water served as a trigger of sorts for the deadly pathogen to emerge and flourish.
"This is shocking," marine ecologist Mark Carr of UC Santa Cruz, who wasn't involved in the study, tells Science. "This is not just a population reduction, this is virtually the loss of a key species over thousands of miles. We've never seen anything like this before." Scientists focused on the sunflower sea star because it's so well-known—capable of growing up to 3 feet in diameter—and is a vital cog in the ocean ecosystem. For example, it feeds on sea urchins, which are now destroying kelp forests off the coast, reports Discover. One brighter spot about the study: Harvell says the impetus came from a $400 donation she received from schoolchildren in Arkansas who'd read about the starfish problem. She matched the amount with her own money, then got more funds for the initial work. (Scientists are seeing signs of a comeback, too.)