Wasting “Zombie” Sea Stars Found in San Diego

A mysterious disease is causing the limbs of some sea star species to fall off and dissolve, according to researchers

A mysterious disease deforming and killing sea stars along the West Coast, causing their limbs to dissolve, has reached the waters off San Diego’s coastline.

The condition is called a number of things, including “melting disease” and “sea star wasting syndrome. The animals typically produce lesions causing their limbs to fall off and dissolve.

The impacted creatures have also been referred to as "zombie sea stars."

“You would see a trail of arms and [think] 'Oh, this is going to lead me somewhere bad,' and then you keep following the arms. Sure enough there's this zombie sea star,” said UCSB research diver Sarah Sampson who is currently working in the North County. “You see the arms crawling away.”

Sampson says there are about 11 species of sea stars in the San Diego area and she hasn’t seen about 75 percent of them since last October.

Similar die-offs have occurred before in the 1970s and 1980s but never at this magnitude and across such an widespread region.

According UC Santa Cruz researchers, since April the number of cases increased dramatically in areas including Carlsbad, La Jolla, Mission Bay and Point Loma.

“In a matter of a day or few days it can go from a lesion to taking the whole star and it just falls apart,” said UCSB research ecologist Steve Schroeter who is based in Carlsbad.

Shroeter is worried about the possible longterm impact of these dying sea stars.

“They’re a very import part of the ecosystem and you get rid of predators and the community is going to change in some ways we know, some we don't,” he told NBC 7.

More sea stars are expected to die off in the coming months. Still, Sampson said she has also seen baby sea stars in local waters, which is evidence of at least some recovery. However, what remains unknown, is whether this new generation of sea stars can survive the mysterious disease.

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