From Oregon Coast Aquarium
Newport, Oregon—The Oregon Coast Aquarium’s scientific dive team discovered that sea star wasting syndrome, a fatal condition that has plagued sea stars and puzzled scientists, has arrived on Oregon’s central coast.
This research team has searched for the syndrome in the subtidal zones of Oregon’s central coast since January, and sent their observations to researchers at University of California at Santa Cruz that head the research. The team observed sunflower stars, Pycnopodia helianthoides, ochre stars, Pisaster ochraceus, and giant pink stars, Pisaster brevispinus, with intermediate or advanced signs of wasting syndrome on an April 27 morning dive in Yaquina Bay.
Sea star wasting syndrome started without warning, inexplicably creeping along seaboards on the east and west coasts of North America. The hallmark symptom of the condition causes sea stars, an iconic invertebrate that has occupied coastal ecosystems for the past 450-million years, to slowly disintegrate as each ray, or arm, walks away and eventually dissolves. Oregon’s populations did not appear to be affected by this condition until this spring.
Scientists are still unsure about what causes the condition. Wasting disease events have affected sea stars in the past, but according to available records it typically only attacks one species. So far, researchers have observed the condition in 12 different species. The two that seem to be most affected, the ochre star and the sunflower star are keystone species, which means they are top predators that maintain an important balance in Oregon’s rocky reef ecosystems.
Kristen Milligan, Program Coordinator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), stated that it is important to note that, “These are also symptoms of unhealthy stars when they are in a stressful environment – such as being stranded too high in the intertidal on a hot day. The current outbreak along the West Coast is ‘true’ wasting disease, meaning that sea stars have these extreme symptoms while in suitable ‘healthy’ habitat.”
The widespread and powerful impact of the syndrome inspired research and conservation groups on the east and west coasts of the United States to combine efforts to learn as much as possible about the condition. The Aquarium’s dive team has plunged into this effort, conducting surveys using standardized research protocols along Oregon’s central coast and sharing their findings with PISCO and Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe).
Research in open waters may not seem like an obvious fit for Aquarium staff, but it is a key part of the Aquarium’s mission.
“The Aquarium is perfectly positioned to study the near shore marine environments of the Oregon coast and the animals and algae that live within them. We have a great team of trained biologists and scuba divers that are often submersed looking to better understand these ecosystems, and also, trends that happen over time. These efforts are an integral part of what the Aquarium staff and volunteers do as stewards of the local ocean, bays and watersheds. All of our field work gives us the ability to provide our visitors with educated, firsthand information through our exhibits and interpretation,” said Jim Burke, the Aquarium’s Director of Animal Husbandry.
Despite turbulent, frigid dive conditions and the daunting scale of sea star wasting syndrome, the potential outcomes of this research are significant. Milligan explained, “This detailed information on outbreak patterns and species affected is needed for helping to understand the impacts on sea star populations and aid in documenting recovery. When combined with all the ecosystem data from other areas, it also contributes to our work to identify cause (or causes) and consequences of the disease.”