It has been almost three and a half years since I first documented seastar wasting syndrome (SSWS) in the lab. Since then many stars have died, in the field and in the lab, and more recently some species seem to be making a comeback in the intertidal. This circumstantial evidence may not be reason enough to conclude that the epidemic is over, but I think there is reason to be hopeful. Any disease outbreak eventually runs its course, and despite its death toll there are always at least some survivors. And I have an individual star that was very sick but seems to be recovering.
In September of 2015 one of my bat stars (Patiria miniata) developed the first tell-tale lesion of SSWS on its aboral surface. At the time the lesion was small (less than 10 mm in diameter) and superficial. Knowing that SSWS starts with minor symptoms and rapidly progresses to something horrific within a day or so, I wanted to keep an eye on this star. It held the same morbid fascination as a car accident or any other impending catastrophe.
5 September 2015
24 November 2015
By November 2015 the main lesion hadn’t grown much but a few others had developed. The star still wasn’t acting sick and was eating every once in a while, although it occasionally ignored the food that I offered.
So far, so good. I was thinking that the star doesn’t look too much worse, so maybe it wouldn’t keep getting sicker. I checked on it regularly, offered food a few times a week, and left it alone.
4 May 2016
Several months later I noticed that the first lesion had gotten much deeper. The outer dermal layers had been completely compromised, exposing the animal’s internal organs (gonad and digestive caecum) to the external environment. This was bad, very bad. Even in stars, internal organs are supposed to be internal, except when stars extrude their stomachs to feed.
This was the point in time when things started going south. The star lost the ability to maintain its internal turgor pressure and became lethargic and floppy. It stopped eating, or even responding to food. It spent most of its time in a corner of the seawater table where it lives, although a few times I saw it wrapped around one of the hoses that feeds the table. However, its body never started disintegrating the way I’d seen with other SSWS victims.
19 January 2017
Fast-forward another several months. About a month ago the sick bat star began perking up a bit when I placed food near the tip of one of the arms. A week later it actually wrapped its arm around the food, and I assume ate it. It has since been eating about once a week, after fasting for at least eight months. I began to think it would recover.
Today I had some time to photograph the star again, and it really appears to be doing much better!
The lesions are apparently healing over; at any rate, the internal organs are no longer exposed to the outside. The body margin between the arms has a few small divots, but they look superficial. Lately the star has been more active, too, cruising around the table instead of hunkering down in a corner. I’m going to keep feeding it to see if it continues to improve.
One of the most remarkable things about many animals with a decentralized nervous system, such as echinoderms and cnidarians, is their ability to regenerate lost parts and repair damage to their bodies. This bat star is a prime example. It has been sick for almost a year and a half now, and for at least half that time it hasn’t eaten. Yet it somehow had the metabolic reserves to heal a major wound to its body wall. That’s some astounding resilience there. I am very impressed, and you should be, too.