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And then there were . . . none

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.

19 thoughts on “And then there were . . . none

  1. carol merrell

    wow shocking and amazing Allison! thank you so much for sharing this. Can I assume you've taken cultures of the wounds, plated them in agar or whatever marine biologists use. I believe you said da/pseudonitzia was not suspect. If it can infect mammals why not inverts? Also can seawater samples be taken to analysize/
    Carol M

  2. algong

    Unfortunately, I haven't had time to do more than examine some tissue under the microscope. I have some star bits frozen and will send them to someone on the east coast who is studying a wasting disease in sea stars there. Perhaps she will be able to determine and identify the culprit.

    And I am not the one who suggested DA as the problem. For one thing, DA gets into the food chain when filter-feeders eat the Pseudonitzschia diatoms. My stars usually eat food that I prep in the fish kitchen; only occasionally do I feed them mussels, so their exposure to DA should be minimal. Second, has there been a bloom of Pseudos in the last few weeks? I don't know, but there certainly could be. In any case, it would be interesting to hear from some of the HAB folks and see if something is going on in the phytoplankton these days.

    1. Thomas Cleaver

      Fukushima? The radioactivity started arriving shortly before this started happening... Nobody seems to ask whether it may be related to the huge amounts of massively irradiated water currently flowing into these areas... Just a thought.

  3. Christine Dillon Strickland

    I have a friend who is looking for samples of the star fish to test. You can find me on Facebook in a group called 311 Fukushima Watchdogs. If you have any such samples, get in touch with me, would you? You could also email me. 😉

  4. PatPatterson

    Can someone please test these in some way for radionucleides? Please? Anything? Cesium, Strontium, Ag-110? (Plutonium)? Corexit?

    I realize there is suggestion of virus/bacteria/internal or internalizing external pathogens via phytoplankton for example.

    Cannot you not just quickly take rough samples of water to find out if there's synthetic chemicals in there and how much, then go under the scope afterwards?

    Amazing information here that is simply non-existent from the 'mainstream' mindset although it IS getting increasing coverage!

    Thank you, and sorry for meeting you through this untamed destruction of such precious lives.

  5. Lisa Andrus

    So have any of your stars been in contact with fresh pacific ocean water, or do you raise them in tanks? We are thinking its radiation poisoning from Fukushima.

  6. algong

    I do not think that wasting disease can be blamed on the radiation leakage from Fukushima. Wasting disease in sea stars is not a new phenomenon: in 1999 a group of biologists recorded and quantified an outbreak of wasting disease in stars at the Channel Islands in southern California, and in 2009 a different group of biologists investigated the effects of water temperature and seasonality on wasting disease in stars British Columbia. So wasting disease has been around for many years and thus cannot be due to the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Also, a similar wasting disease is currently occurring on the east coast of North America. The species are different but the symptoms are very similar. In both cases, the disease outbreak occurred in species with large populations, so what we are observing may be simply the spread of a pathogen through host populations at high density.

    1. Jim Piver

      Certainly, as a marine biologist and college-level biology instructor you must be aware of the fact that radioactivity has been detected in migrating bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, right?

      1. algong

        Of course, but we've known for at least a decade that Pacific blue fin tuna regularly migrate across the entire ocean basin. Tuna caught in California waters have been feeding in Japan, which is where they would have fed on smaller fish that had been eating plankton contaminated with radiation.

        You can see what Ken Buesseler, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies the spread of radionuclides from Fukushima into the Pacific, has to say about radiation contamination in fish:

        Also, here's an article summarizing the effects of radiation from Fukushima on marine life:

  7. Sue-Ellen Campbell

    There is the thought though, that radiation disrupts the creatures protective systems and allows virus or bacteria to overwhelm them.. I thought I had: radiation results in gigantism in some plants and insects...maybe it's caused a super bug ...similar to what has always been around but strong....a star fish rabies

  8. algong

    Could be, Sue-Ellen. I still think that a more likely (and more parsimonious) explanation is that a pathogen is the cause of the disease. Since the pathogen has yet to be isolated and identified, it is too soon to say whether or not it is related to the Fukushima accident. It could be an ordinary pathogen that is always present but makes itself known only when it causes visible disease.

  9. b.e.verins

    It is entirely possible that it is a pathogen (actually most likely) however, one must also look at the OTHER sea life that are developing acute diseases at this exact same time. Sea Lions, Polar Bears, Oarfish, Sardines, Tuna, Salmon to name those that have been observed are ALSO developing bleeding, sores, loss of fur/hair, beaching and wasting away.

    All these pathogens at the same exact time? Or maybe... its radiation sickness tipping the scales. All the other poison we've dumped in the oceans.. all the global warming...all the acidifcation of the oceans.... animals barely keeping up with that and along comes some MORE poison... the debris and radiation from Fukushima might well be the Straw that broke the camel's back.

    1. algong

      Yes, what you've posited could be a valid hypothesis. The thing to do now is to test it scientifically. That involves more than gathering anecdotes about animals that are dying in various grisly ways. Marine ecologists are working all the time to try to understand how factors biotic and abiotic are affecting marine life, but it's a long and complicated process. Collecting and analysing empirical evidence does not happen overnight, unfortunately; if that were the case, we wouldn't need to spend so many years toiling away in graduate school!

      Also, remember that correlation does not equal causation. A series of events that occur at the same time may or may not be correlated, and even if they are, that doesn't mean they have the same underlying cause. Perhaps they do, but we would need to find that cause before we can state with any scientific certainty that the events are more than mere coincidence.

      Right now there is a large effort going on to monitor the extent of sea star wasting disease occurring intertidally along the Pacific coast of North America. If you have any personal observations of wasting disease in stars where you live, you can enter them on PISCO's map here:

  10. Jack Donald

    As a Molecular Biologist, I agree that correlation does not equal causation and under normal circumstances a slow methodical approach to determining cause and effect is prudent. Unfortunately, under the current situation, time is of the essence and a global view is paramount if, in fact, this is a result of radiation poisoning.

    As someone who has lived 46 years on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, in San Diego, California, I have noticed disturbing trends in the past year that make me suspect Fukushima is the root cause. In order to investigate this possibility we must look at the big picture and use inductive reasoning based on our knowledge of radioactive isotopes, their effects on the environment and their impact on living systems.

    A comprehensive analysis of current conditions will be required. We need a global assessment of all species recently exhibiting non-characteristic behavior, atypical disease patterns and other changes that threaten population densities. Concurrently, we need to collect environmental data across the board, on an unprecedented scale, to rapidly assess changes in the ocean environment. This global snapshot should then be compared to historical data to put the scope of this crisis in perspective.

    This will require a cooperative effort among biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, nuclear physicists, chemists and many others to build a global picture of the current state of the environment and the species within it. An army of volunteers from field biologists and graduate students to environmental activists on the shores and fishermen on the high seas will need to be deployed to gather data and samples for analysis.

    This effort will ultimately require an a group of trusted men and women, from academia, with impeccable reputations to coordinate its complexities and delegate tasks to efficiently and rapidly produce results. This process must be completely transparent and open source with a mechanism to gather and disseminate data in realtime on the world wide web using crowd sourcing methods wherever possible.

    All necessary resources should be made available to this effort without regard to cost. Public, commercial and academic entities should be encouraged to provide resources at no cost. Private and public funds should be acquired only when necessary and without stipulation or regulatory oversight in order to prevent political and private interests from impeding the effort or influencing the direction of the research in anyway.

    Lastly, a watchdog group, made up of experts and activists with no financial interests and moderate political agendas should be established to expose impropriety among participants but have no influence over the direction of the effort.

    This effort must start in earnest from the ground up beginning with biologists providing up to date information on species they are studying using a simple format and deposited in a centralized location on the web. Secondly, the effort must be given visibility through scientific channels, blogs, journals and news articles. This effort must go viral in order to gain momentum rapidly which will require the efforts of activists and artists, Youtube networks and Facebook.

    At some point structure will be forced to coalesce at the upper levels in order to analyze the growing body of data and produce meaningful results. Leaders will rise from within the effort in a natural way. Otherwise, if this effort it is built from the top down, bureaucracy, politics and money will impede progress and produce biased results.

    There is a role for everyone in this effort and an opportunity for brilliant minds to emerge and new leaders to rise to the surface. We all must get involved because so much is at risk. Please consider this proposal as a starting point and make it your own. Do whatever it takes to save the Pacific Ocean before it is too late.

  11. Jesse

    Allison, your level-headed and science-directed responses to the irrational wave of hysteria over Fukushima is commendable. Not to say Fukushima is not a problem-- it certainly is, and potentially for a long time to come (therein lays the real issue)-- but it is a local disaster (for now), and not the cause of every mysterious malady to arise an ocean away. Anyhow, I hope you find out what's really going on!

  12. Carolyn Rader

    I am not a marine biologist but grew up on the Georgia coast on a barrier island with marine biologists. I just read about this newest mass causality of our oceans. Dolphins dying on the east coast about the same time. Definitely telling us something. Our earth is sick and we aren't listening.


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