Biologists search for cause of sea star deaths

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by AMY MORENO / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on October 26, 2013 at 6:01 PM

Divers were out in Puget Sound waters Saturday to see if they can help solve a mystery. Scientists are trying to figure out what's causing one species of starfish to die in parts of Puget Sound and the waters off of Canada.                

Seattle Aquarium biologists Jeff Christiansen and Joel Hollander suited up in scuba gear in their search for answers.  “We're going to look for both healthy and potentially diseased sea stars,” Christiansen explained. “We've got some sea stars that look like they're melting on the bottom.”

The same thing is happening in the waters near Canada and nobody’s sure why.  The cause could be environmental or perhaps driven by disease.

“We often think viral when we think of sea star disease,” Veterinarian Lesanna Lahner explained.  “At this time, we don't have a good idea of what's causing it, so we're going to look for everything.”

Just a few weeks ago, the populations in Puget Sound waters near the aquarium looked healthy.  Saturday, biologists were surprised by what they saw. 

“There are a lot of melting seas tars out there, more than even a couple days ago” Christiansen said.  “There would be a healthy animal in really close proximity to a sick animal; there was no concentration of sick ones and concentration of good ones.”

Lahner took the healthy and sick animals that were gathered into the lab so they could gather samples. 

“It's concerning to hear in a short time period we're seeing 60% of this species diseased in this area,” she said.

The samples will go to Cornell University and another lab in New York where the samples from Canada are already being analyzed.  They hope to have results within a few weeks.

So far it's only impacting the sunflower species of sea star, but biologists say there is a delicate balance in these waters and when one species is hurting, it threatens to impact the entire ecosystem.

So far, the diseased starfish have not been reported in other parts of Puget Sound.  The aquarium is asking divers to take photos and give them a call, if they spot any.

 

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