Scientists are trying to make sense of a disturbing plague that causes infected starfish to rip off their own arms and gut themselves. It's something we've never heard of before. The phenomenon was first discovered off the coast of Washington and now it is spreading quickly towards several regions where starfish can be found.
It is understood that an infected starfish would tear itself apart, with arms slithering to opposite directions until the creature is completely ripped to shreds.
Generally it shouldn't be a problem for the starfish population, since the species is capable of regenerating missing limbs. However, this is not the case for the starfish that are infected with this new disease.
The disease, which is known as "Sea Star Wasting Syndrome," is a mystery among researchers and scientists, and they are asking beachgoers to photograph any starfish depicting symptoms of the unknown disease and tweet the images with the #sickstarfish tag. This should help researchers in their bid to come to terms with the problem, and hopefully come up with a solution.
It is important for researchers to fix this issue as starfish are key members of the marine ecosystem. If their numbers should deplete substantially, the consequences could be dangerous for the marine ecosystems.
"What we currently think is likely happening is that there is a pathogen, like a parasite or a virus or a bacteria, that is infecting the sea stars and that compromises in some way their immune system," said Pete Raimondi, from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Not every starfish species has been affected by the virus, however, but it is not certain if it will spread to others down the line.
"The two species affected most are Pisaster ochraceus (purple sea star or ochre starfish) and Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower sea star)," said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.
We may soon have an idea what is really causing these creatures' immune system to break down in such a manner, as biologist Ben Miner has collected healthy starfishes along with infected ones to run key tests.
At the moment, scientists are doing genetic sequencing to determine if infections or toxins are to be blamed for this weird phenomenon.