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January 31, 2014

Starfish dying in real life horror movie

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Starfish up and down the Pacific Coast are dying from a mysterious epidemic that causes the creatures’ arms to crawl in opposite directions until they tear away from the body causing the insides to spill out.

Diver and videographer Laura James realized something was wrong when she saw starfish washing up on the shores near her home in Seattle. Hoping to do something about it, she went to a popular diving spot with her camera and discovered a horror scene.

“There were just bodies everywhere. And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized,” she said.

Reports of dead starfish have surfaced from Southern California to as far north as Alaska. At first, only a certain species known as the sunflower star seemed to be affected. Then it hit another species, then another. In all, about a dozen species of sea stars are dying along the West Coast. It’s been coined sea star wasting syndrome, and it’s also been reported at sites along the East Coast.

The disease progresses quickly: first, the stars twist their arms into knots and sometimes lesions form on their skin. Then, the arms crawl in opposite directions ripping the creature apart. Starfish that came in with symptoms died within 24 hours.

So far, scientists do not know what is causing the epidemic or how to stop it. They do fear for a future in which the starfish population is decimated, particularly because starfish are such voracious predators.

“Because these are ecologically important specie, when you lose this many sea stars, it will certainly change the seascape,” said marine epidemiologist Drew Harvell of Cornell University.

Starfish in the region eat snails, mussels, mollusks, sea cucumbers, urchins and even small fish.


Warm up questions
  1. What is an ecosystem?  What kinds of ecosystems exist in the ocean?
  2. What do you know about the environmental health of the oceans?
  3. What is being done to make sure the oceans and its inhabitants stay healthy? Whose responsibility is it?
Discussion questions and writing prompts
  1. Describe the mysterious epidemic of the Pacific Coast starfish- what is happening and what is being done to stop it?
  2. What effect could the disappearance of the starfish have on the larger aquatic environment?
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