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Starfish are dying in huge numbers from a gruesome wasting disease

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Starfish are dying off in startling numbers along the West Coast of the United States and Canada. And they're doing it in a rather gnarly manner: the sea creatures are coming down with a syndrome that sees them disintegrate into piles of white goop.

Marine scientists are warning that instances of the illness, known as sea star wasting syndrome, are occurring at an unprecedented rate this year. The ailment is believed to be caused by a bacterial infection, but scientists are still trying to figure out why it's cropping up now. According to new data from UC Santa Cruz, 10 different species of sea star have come down with the syndrome and 95 percent of starfish in some regions have been wiped out. Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are tracking reports of the syndrome, which has popped up as far north as Alaska and as far south as Santa Barbara, CA.

"They essentially melt in front of you."

"They essentially melt in front of you," Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab, told The Press Democrat. Starfish afflicted with the syndrome first exhibit an emaciated appearance and white lesions. Within a few days, scientists observe "fragmentation of the body" as the starfish lose their characteristic arms. From there, the rest of the starfish body softens and rapidly melts into what one scientist described as "goo piles."

It's unclear what's causing the outbreaks, but scientists thus far speculate that unusually warm ocean temperatures — which lend themselves to the proliferation of bacteria — might be responsible. In the 1980s, sea star wasting syndrome struck starfish along the Southern California coast around the time that El Niño heated waterways. Scientists at UC Santa Cruz are now tracking instances of wasting syndrome along the coast, in the hopes of more conclusively establishing what caused it and just how severe the outbreak is.

Already, however, experts warn that a smaller population of starfish could have broad consequences. One common sea star species, Pisaster ochraceus, seems particularly vulnerable to the syndrome. Because these starfish feed on mussels, scientists worry that the bivalves could proliferate in waterways and overwhelm other species.