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Well, it looks like the end is indeed nigh. That last Pisaster, for whom I held out unreasonable hope for so long, seems to be on its way out. Today it has lost its last two arms, leaving a central disc attached to a single arm:

Remains of Pisaster ochraceus that has lost four arms. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Remains of Pisaster ochraceus that has lost four arms.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

As bad as it looks, it could be a lot worse. The other stars that disintegrated to this degree were essentially amorphous piles of goo, and this one is still somewhat intact. It also hasn't gone entirely mushy, so it is somehow maintaining its internal pressure. I'm going to keep it for another day and see how it looks tomorrow.

The other two arms, on the other hand (ha!), were a mess. When I got to the table this afternoon they were both semi-attached and semi-upside down behind one of the quarantine tanks. And they were very mushy; when I picked them up they just collapsed the way sea cucumbers do before they start firming up. Gross.

Autotomized arms of Pisaster ochraceus ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Autotomized arms of Pisaster ochraceus
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

This has to be the end, if only because I don't have any more Pisaster stars to die. Unless the Patiria and Dermasterias stars that I quarantined start getting sick, the outbreak in my seawater table is over, simply because there are no more victims to be infected. From a pathogen's perspective a 100% mortality rate is a bad thing--if all hosts of a population are killed then the pathogen will die with them. However, my table is connected by water supply to other tables and labs, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the pathogen is out there in Monterey Bay (the source of our seawater), in which case there's nothing I can do about it. Actually, I can do something. I can cross my fingers and hope for the best.



Against all odds, my last Pisaster star is (literally) hanging in there. It hasn't lost any more arms in the past 24 hours, and by the standards of the past two weeks that's a rousing success.

Pisaster star that lost two arms yesterday but no more since. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Pisaster ochraceus star that lost two arms yesterday but no more since.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

And it hasn't lost the turgor pressure of its body, so it isn't as limp as the others were before they died. I didn't want to mess with the animal too much, but it was pretty strongly attached to the table, indicating that the water vascular system hasn't lost all of its integrity. If that inter-radial area towards the top of the photograph is one of the areas where an arm was autotomized, the wound has healed surprisingly well. I will have to see what happens tomorrow.

On the other hand, the disease has spread to the lab next door, where a Pisaster giganteus started melting away two days ago. It was discovered with a small P. ochraceus feeding on the sick star, and the two stars have been since isolated. Today the P. giganteus looked horrifying:

Pisaster giganteus star melting from wasting disease. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Pisaster giganteus star melting from wasting disease.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

This is a really sick animal. There's a large wound on the bottom edge where an arm had been autotomized; it looks like the wound hasn't started healing at all. One of the remaining arms has twisted so that it is upside-down with the ambulacral groove--where the tube feet are visible--is facing upwards; that arm is probably going to be cast off soon. The beige-ish fluffy bits in the top of the photo are pieces of gut and water vascular system that are protruding through wounds in the body wall. I would be very surprised if this poor animal is still alive tomorrow. So far, the one that was feeding on this creature doesn't look diseased, so perhaps it will escape the pestilence.


The last of my Pisaster ochraceus stars waited until today, three whole days after all of its conspecifics had died, to start ripping itself into pieces. This is the sight that greeted me when I checked on my animals this morning:

My last Pisaster and its autotomized arm ©2013 Allison J. Gong
My last Pisaster and its autotomized arm
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

I spent some time examining the severed arm because it is freakishly fascinating to watch autotomized parts continue on as though they were still attached to the main body. They literally don't know that they're dead.  I've seen almost completely eviscerated sea urchins lumber around a seawater table on about 10 tube feet for days before finally giving up the ghost. This arm remained very active for quite a while--at least an hour--before I gave up and threw it away.

While I had this severed arm in a bowl under the dissecting scope I thought I'd take a few photos of the surface. Beautifully complex animals, sea stars are, when you look at them up close.

View through dissecting microscope of aboral surface of arm of Pisaster ochraceus. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
View through dissecting microscope of aboral surface of arm of Pisaster ochraceus.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong
Oral surface of arm of Pisaster ochraceus, showing tube feet. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Oral surface of arm of Pisaster ochraceus, showing tube feet.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

Meanwhile, the remaining 4/5 of the star continued to walk around the table. It ended up behind one of the quarantine tanks in which I had sequestered the bat stars, where over the course of the next couple of hours it dropped another arm. Because of its location I wasn't able to get a decent photo of it, but here is a shot of the wound from the first autotomization:

Wound caused by autotomy of an arm in Pisaster ochraceus. ©2013 Allison J. Gong
Wound caused by autotomy of an arm in Pisaster ochraceus.
©2013 Allison J. Gong

And I'm not the only one at the lab dealing with this disease outbreak. The lab next door is losing a couple of stars, and the Seymour Center lost one of their Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower star) yesterday. And, I heard second-hand that a student in the Santa Cruz area saw some dying stars on a dive in the past few days. What happened in my seawater table over the past few weeks may be just the beginning of something really, really bad.


As of today, I am cautiously optimistic that the Pisaster wasting disease I've been dealing with for the past couple of weeks has run its course. There has been quite a cost, however, as a mortality rate of 90% leaves me with one lonely star remaining.

The sole survivor of an outbreak of Pisaster wasting disease. Photo credit:  Allison J. Gong 2013
The sole survivor of an outbreak of Pisaster wasting disease.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

This lone survivor reminds me of Brother John Clyn, a Franciscan monk and chronicler in Ireland who recorded the deaths of his fellow brothers during the Black Death in the 14th century and may have been the only inhabitant of his monastery not to die of the plague. It remains to be seen whether or not my star eventually succumbs and starts wasting away. But given how quickly all the other Pisasters were affected and killed, I think it's a good sign that this individual isn't sick already.

In the meantime, the quarantined Patiria miniata (bat stars) and Dermasterias imbricata (leather star) remain apparently unaffected. Keep your fingers crossed!


And I don't mean plague as in "too many stars to know what to do with," but as in "disastrous sickness that you don't want to catch." Some of the stars in my seawater table have been succumbing to some awful disease lately. A week ago today I noticed that many stars had been busy cannibalizing one of their compadres. Sometimes this just happens, and it doesn't necessarily indicate that things are about to go south. But when I looked more closely I noticed that the victim, instead of just being eaten, had autotomized its arms. Autotomy occurs in most sea stars and other invertebrates, and in fact is used as a method of clonal replication in some stars and many cnidarians. The species of star that is being affected by this plague (Pisaster ochraceus, the common ochre star) isn't one that readily autotomizes except in response to some external stress, such as a predator pulling on an arm.

So something was going on in this table. On Monday (Labor Day) I popped in for a quick check and although nobody had lost any arms I couldn't be absolutely sure that everything was okay. Some of the Pisasters were a little squishy and had arms that were a little twisted. On Tuesday morning there was no autotomy but in the afternoon a star had lost an arm, greatly disturbing the student lab assistant who discovered it. On Wednesday the table looked like an asteroid battlefield:

Large Patiria miniata (bat star) scavenging on dead Pisaster ochraceus (ochre star)
Large Patiria miniata (bat star) scavenging on dead Pisaster ochraceus (ochre star).
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

Many of the other Pisasters were also showing signs of sickness: curly arms (visible in the yellow star in the lower right corner of the photo above. Another ominous sign is that some of the apparently sickly stars were kind of squishy, indicating that the water vascular systems were somehow compromised.

Severed arms littered the table. The autotomized arms retain mobility for quite a while after being cast off--they literally don't know that they're dead.

Autotomized arm of a sick sea star
Autotomized arm of a sick Pisaster ochraceus. The other, intact, star is Orthasterias koehleri, the rainbow star. © 2013 Allison J. Gong

After removing the corpses and cleaning the table as best I could I was able to take a closer look at the survivors. I noticed that most of the remaining Pisaster stars had twisty or crossed arms, and some showed pretty severe stretching in the interambulacral area ("armpit" between adjacent rays), which I think is the first stage of autotomy.

Pisaster ochraceus stretched interambulacral area, pulling its own arm off.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

The disease progresses very rapidly, and within an hour a star in this condition had pulled off one arm and was working on another.

Pisaster ochraceus that has autotomized an arm. Injury site is visible as a white area in lower edge of central disc. The autotomized arm is located at the top of the photo.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

Unfortunately, this disease also affects other species. My Orthasterias koehleri (rainbow star) decided to join the fun. When I arrived Wednesday morning it was intact. It dropped an arm. I went away for about 40 minutes to take care of tasks in a different building, and when I returned it had lost two more arms:

Orthasterias koehleri that dropped three arms in about an hour. The autotomized arms are indicated by yellow arrows. The remaining 2/5 of the star are attached to the outside of my urchin tank.
© 2013 Allison J. Gong

Alas, my one and only Orthasterias succumbed later in the day and was dead on Thursday. Interestingly, the disease does not seem to affect either Patiria miniata (bat stars) or Dermasterias imbricata (leather stars). In fact, the Patiria have been eating pretty well over the past week, scavenging on the carcasses of the plague victims. I don't know if eating the diseased tissue will cause problems later on.

On Friday I lost two more Pisasters and isolated the Patiria and Dermasterias into tanks. A colleague of mine calls this the Molokai treatment, and I probably should have done it sooner, but I figured that at this point all the stars in the table were exposed to whatever pathogen is causing this disease so at that point why bother? However, I will need to sequester the healthy stars in order to disinfect the table once the disease has run its course, so into tanks they went.

After checking on the stars Saturday morning I am cautiously optimistic that the plague may have run its course. One more Pisaster, that was looking sickly the day before, had died, but my last two appeared healthy. Their arms were not curly, I didn't see any interambulacral stretching, and they felt nice and hard when I poked at them. All of these are good signs, but I will continue to keep close watch on them. If they make it to Monday we just might be out of the woods.

As of today, one week after I noticed the first severe symptoms, I have lost 80% of my Pisaster collection. To put that in to context, this mortality rate is every bit as bad as some villages that were virtually wiped out by the medieval Black Death.

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