A horrifying disease is making thousands of Starfish in the pacific ocean rip themselves apart, and the cause has left scientists baffled – until now. A team of researchers was recently able to isolate the virus, and they are calling it Sea Star Associated Densovirus (SSaDV). The pathogen was identified after eliminating bacteria, protozoans and fungi as possible culprits.

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Last year scientists discovered a disease that causes white lesions to form on the body of sea stars – after which the creatures rupture and spills their organs. Further research tied the disease to the world’s warming oceans, and now researchers have pinpointed the pathogen that is attacking more than 20 species of sea stars along the Pacific coast.

Related: Mass Pacific Starfish Die Off Linked to Warming Oceans

SSaDV has been present in sea stars for at least 70 years, but it was found only at low levels until last year. Now the epidemic threatens to wipe out entire populations: “It’s probably the largest epidemic in marine wildlife that we know of,” Cornell ecologist Drew Harvell said. Although global warming might be helping the virus along, scientists aren’t sure what has caused such a dramatic outbreak at this particular moment. Viral mutations might be one explanation, but researchers won’t know for certain until more studies have been completed.

One thing is certain: without sea stars, the entire coastal ecosystem is threatened – the creatures are essential predators in the coastal waters.

Via Reuters

Images via Oregon State University