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Published on Jun 15, 2014
KCTS 9 - Starfish are dying by the millions, leading scientists to warn of the possibility of localized extinction of some species. As the disease spreads, researchers may be zeroing in on a link between warming waters and the rising sea star body count.
ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. -- Drew Harvell peers into the nooks and crannies along the rocky shoreline of Eastsound on Orcas Island. Purple and orange starfish clutch the rocks, as if hanging on for dear life.
In fact, they are.
"It's a lot worse than it was last week," says Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University. She's been leading nationwide efforts to understand what is causing starfish to die by the millions up and down North America's Pacific shores and on the east coast as well. It's been called sea star wasting syndrome because of how quickly the stars become sick and deteriorate.
"It's the largest mortality event for marine diseases we've seen," Harvell said. "It affects over twenty species on our coast and it's been causing catastrophic mortality."
Sea stars are an apex predator in the intertidal zone. They voraciously consume mussels and other shellfish, and they are referred to as a "keystone species," meaning that, like in any stone building, if you remove the keystone, things start to crumble.
"It has an extraordinarily significant effect on the biodiversity of the entire community," Blanchette said. "Losing a predator like that is bound to have some pretty serious ecological consequences and we really don't know exactly how the system is going to look but we're quite certain that it's going to have an impact."