During my first week at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, our tanks suffered a minor catastrophe. We had another small bloom of sea star wasting disease, a notorious viral infection that has been killing off sea stars all along the north Pacific coast.
I have personally seen the effects of wasting on beaches from Alaska to California, so I was anxious to see it in a captive setting. It’s a pretty depressing progression, that’s for sure. I watched four sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthiodes) progress from behaving unnaturally to losing limbs in a matter of a few days.
However upsetting the disease is, it is fascinating and heartening to see the work the PTMSC is putting in to tracking and understanding it. Along with other aquaria, the PTMSC observers noted that the first stage of the disease is a behavioral one. Stars act lethargic and twist their arms across one another. This observation has allowed the Science Center volunteers and staff to detect the presence of the disease before any animals show more classic physical symptoms.
The PTMSC runs a citizen science monitoring program of its tanks and of nearby subtidal and intertidal plots. Volunteers and staff gather data on the health of many different species and populations of stars in Strait of Jaun de Fuca water. These data are shared with the University of California Santa Cruz and other organizations monitoring the disease.
Hopefully we are contributing to a better understanding of the disease, its symptoms, and its spread in our ecosystem.
A sunflower star with wasting that has started to lose limbs.
A sunflower star with wasting. Note the white lesions and deflated appearance.
Zofia and me removing a sick sea star from the cluster tanks. I was very close to trading places with the sea star that day!
REBECCA MOSTOW is the Marine Exhibit Educator and an AmeriCorps member at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.