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Feb 10, 2014 01:41 PM EST

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome Kills Starfish at Alarming Rate, Puzzles Scientists

Starfish on the country's West Coast are suffering from an ecological problem known as sea star wasting syndrome, which is killing a large number of colonies, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Pete Raimondi, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, said he believes the disease has affected tens of thousands of starfish, but that figure may also be in the low millions. The West Coast's population of the still and steady fish is believed to be in the tens of millions, but data has not definitively put a number on either figure.

Sea star wasting syndrome's symptoms include an unnatural twisting of the arms followed by white bruises appearing on its skin. When the fish lost limbs and their tissue softened, a swift demise was upon them.

The principal investigator on the Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Group, Raimondi told the Anchorage Daily News starfish die offs have never been documented at this magnitude. He said the first piece of evidence pointing to sea star wasting syndrome was found on Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Shortly after, it spread quickly along the West Coast.

"It was the last place on earth where we would have expected to see it," Raimondi said.

Anchorage Museum curator Greg Danner said what is most curious of all is the disease has seemingly disappeared as quickly as it arrived. From Aug. to Nov., the museum euthanized eight starfish with white lesions and missing limbs. Since Nov., sea star wasting syndrome has apparently evaporated.

"We're in the same mystery boat as the rest of the world," he said.

Raimondi is still investigating the disease, which he says is most common among starfish in captivity. Scientists believe the swift recovery was aided by the museum controlling water temperatures by limiting how many observers can reach in and touch the fish at one time.

Raimondi told the Anchorage Daily News his work indicates that the most likely cause of the disease is a pathogen, meaning a cure may be at hand. The remaining question would then be how to come about that cure.

Said Raimondi, "Is it the type of thing that will heal itself over time? That's the real question."

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