The sea star wasting syndrome has reached epidemic proportions and researchers expect that local starfish extinctions are all but guaranteed at this point. The awful disease causes starfish to tear themselves apart, and it has been devastating starfish populations for months now with no signs of slowing. The Oregon coast in particular has seen an explosion in wasting cases, and scientists expect that the purple ochre sea star will likely be wiped out in the near future, which could have a crippling impact on the ocean ecosystem.

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Until now, Oregon has been one of the only areas to escape from the wasting disease, but once it hit the area, it hit hard. In April less than 1 percent of sea stars were infected but by early June somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of purple ochre sea stars were affected. In one area, about 60 percent had contracted the disease, which kills the starfish within 24 hours. Researchers believe that the epidemic will only continue to spread and that in some areas the purple ochre sea star could be completely wiped out.

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“We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before,” said Bruce Menge, professor at the OSU College of Science. “It’s very serious. Some of the sea stars most heavily affected are keystone predators that influence the whole diversity of life in the intertidal zone.” For now, researchers across the nation are working to understand what is causing the disease, but at least 10 species of sea stars have shown documented mortality from the disease. For an interactive map to follow the disease, click here.


Images via Kristen Milligan for OSU