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Ghosts

I seem to have a need to keep investigating seastar wasting syndrome (SSWS) and trying to make sense of what I and others see in the field. I think it parallels my morbid fascination with the medieval Black Death. In any case, I've devised a plan to continue experimenting with one aspect of the potential recovery of one species, the ochre star, Pisaster ochraceus.

The first step of this plan was to collect a few more stars, which I did back in early March. For the past year or so the stars had been becoming more abundant at certain sites, leading to hope that the populations were beginning to recover and speculation as to whether these individuals were pre-SSWS survivors or post-SSWS recruits. I think they are survivors, because it seems highly unlikely that a star can grow from teensy (a few millimeters in diameter) to hand-sized on a few years. This is what I want to address experimentally in the lab.

The three stars that I collected seemed to adjust well to life in the lab. They all ate well and were crawling around in their tank. Then, last Friday (31 March 2017, to be exact) I checked on the stars as I usually do and was horrified to see this:

Dismembered bits of an ochre star (Pisaster ochraceus)
31 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Knowing from experience how quickly this can happen, I'd guess this star had begun ripping itself into pieces in the previous 24 hours. And meantime, its tankmates had stuck themselves to the underside of the cover of the tank. This is not unusual behavior and once I poked them both to make sure they weren't getting mush I decided not to worry about them for the time being. The important thing was to remove the not-dead-yet pieces of the exploded star and bleach the tank before returning the apparently healthy stars to it.

One of the most horrific aspects of SSWS is that it is both blindingly fast and agonizingly slow. It appears to strike out of the blue, by which I mean that stars can look absolutely fine one afternoon and be torn to bits the next morning. And it's slow because the individual pieces can live for hours or even days before finally dying.

31 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

This star broke itself into five pieces. The three pieces of arm had started getting mushy but still responded by sticking harder when I picked them up. That larger section with two arms and the madreporite was actually walking around the bowl. The torn-off pieces were all oozing sperm into the water, so at least I know this individual was a male. Small comfort, that, when I had to bag up the pieces and throw them in the trash.

Being confronted with the specter of SSWS, I wondered exactly what it meant. I've never been under the illusion that SSWS goes away entirely. I suspect that it is always present in the wild, possibly at low enough levels that we don't notice it for decades at a time. Seeing one dead star, which presumably was infected in the field before I brought it into the lab. . . does it mean the plague is rearing its ugly head again? Or is this a one-off that I just happened to catch? There's only one way to find out, and that is to see if there are more sick stars in the field. So that's what I did the following two days. I had planned to visit three intertidal sites where I expect Pisaster ochraceus to live, but my concussed brain allowed me to drive to only the two nearest sites.

I went to Natural Bridges on Saturday, where I'd been seeing lots of ochre stars over the past several months. I hadn't seen a sick star there for years, although at the outbreak of the plague in 2013 the ochre stars disappeared suddenly. In the past couple of years I'd been happy to see lots of healthy hand-sized stars there. Last weekend it seemed I saw fewer stars than I had gotten used to seeing, but none of them were sick. Whew!

Pair of healthy Pisaster ochraceus at Natural Bridges
1 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The next day I went to Mitchell's Cove, where I'd collected those three stars back in March. I did see lots of great-looking stars, some as small as ~6 cm in diameter and others bigger than my outstretched hand.

Trio of healthy Pisaster ochraceus at Mitchell's Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

But I also saw this:

Arm of a P. ochraceus that was killed by SSWS at Mitchell's Cove
2 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

This is all that remains of an ochre star that apparently succumbed to SSWS. No other body parts are visible in the vicinity, and this arm bit was barely hanging on to the rock. Given how quickly stars can disintegrate when SSWS hits, this one probably began showing symptoms the previous day, while the tide was in and nobody would have seen it. And who knows how many other stars got sick and died without anybody noticing.

The take-home message is that I need to not let SSWS fall off my mental radar. I hope to god that my six remaining P. ochraceus in the lab remain healthy and that I can spawn them in a couple of weeks. I've obtained from a friend some small dishes seeded with food that tiny juvenile stars may be able to eat. I'm not too worried about getting through the larval development stage, although I probably shouldn't get too cocky about that. In any case, it's the post-larval juvenile survivorship that I'm really interested in. This year I don't have Scott to help me with the husbandry and data collection. I will instead be working with another colleague, Betsy. We have a spawning date at the end of April, when the next phase of my ongoing SSWS investigation will begin.

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