A mysterious illness that causes starfish to rip themselves apart has marine scientists baffled. The mystery condition has affected starfish up and down the west coast, mainly near Washington state.
The illness causes starfish to develop lesions on their bodies. The disoriented starfish twist their arms into knots. The arms then crawl away and rip apart from the bodies causing the insides to spill out. Without arms the starfish die within 24 hours. And, unlike most starfish, the arms don't regenerate.
Reports of dying starfish have surfaced from Southern California to as far north as Alaska. There have also been reports of dying starfish at points along the east coast. Scientists say it's too early to connect the bicoastal deaths.
Starfish are a delicacy in many seafood restaurants where the fish is served cold as sushi. Scientists are concerned that sick starfish may be served to consumers.
Diver Laura James was among the first to notice the strange phenomenon when shredded starfish began washing up on the shores near her Seattle home.
"And I thought, you know what, this is getting a little too close for comfort. I need to go and see what's going on," James told PBS.org.
An underwater videographer, James captured the carnage on film. She said it was like a scene from a horror film. "There were bodies everywhere. To me it looked like someone had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they were just vaporized."
Nobody seems to know why the starfish, also known as sea stars, are committing suicide up and down the west coast. The illness has affected more than a dozen species of starfish. Scientists have given the illness a name: "Sea star wasting syndrome."
"I've been diving out here for almost 24 years, and people always ask me, 'Do you see any big difference between now and when you started,'" said James. "I've seen some subtle differences.. but it's not like this. It's not a mass mortality event."
Scientists believe ships from the other side of the world may have carried pathogens that affected the starfish. They base their theory on the fact that the illness follows the main shipping routes.
CAUTION: Don't watch the video if you have a weak stomach.