Until recently I hadn't closely observed what it looks like when a leather star (Dermasterias imbricata) succumbs to wasting syndrome. When I had the outbreak of plague in my tablealmost 18 months ago now, my only leather star was fine one day and decomposing the next, so I didn't get to see what actually happened as it was dying.
(Un)fortunately, one of the leather stars at the marine lab started wasting a bit more than two weeks ago, and this time I was able to catch it at the beginning. This animal wasn't in my care so I didn't check on it as frequently as I would if it had been living in one of my tables, but one of the aquarists pointed it out to me when it began getting sick.
The first symptom was a lesion on the aboral surface. I say "lesion" but it's more of an open wound.
You can see that the animal's insides are exposed to the external environment. In the photo above the whitish milky-looking stuff is gonad (I'm pretty sure this animal was a male) and the beige ribbon bits are pyloric caeca, essentially branches of the stomach that extend into the arms. What typically happens along with the development of lesions like this is an overall deflating of the star as the water vascular system and other coelomic systems become increasingly compromised, and the tendency for the animal to start tearing off its arms.
Which results in this, a week later:
This poor animal had torn its arm off, and continued to live for a while. I find it fascinating that the lack of a centralized nervous system means that this animal literally didn't know it was dead. It was finally declared officially dead two days later. Compared to how quickly wasting syndrome kills the forcipulates that I've seen (Pisaster, Pycnopodia, and Orthasterias), the leather stars take a long time to die--several days from start to finish, opposed to a matter of hours as I saw with my stars. The leathers didn't seem to be hit as hard by the first wave of the disease outbreak, either. Is Dermasterias somehow able to fight off the infection a bit longer? It would be interesting to know, wouldn't it?
Yesterday I collected three very small Pycnopodia helianthoides stars. When I brought them back to the marine lab I decided to photograph them because with stars this small I could easily distinguish between the original five arms and the new ones:
These guys began their post-larval life with the typical five arms you'd expect from an asteroid. At this stage they are pretty conspicuous because they are the largest arms. The other arms arise in the inter-radial regions between arms. For years now I've been wanting to watch juvenile Pycnopodia stars growing their extra arms, and it looks like I finally have my chance. I noted that these stars are all about the same size, but don't have the same number of arms. It would be interesting to see if the rate of arm appearance and growth is related to how much food the stars have. Hmmm, that sounds like a study I should do.
And then one of the stars started running. And I mean running. Watch:
You might wonder how in the heck they can run so fast, and it's a valid question. We can actually examine the animal's scientific name to get an answer. "Pycnopodia" means "dense foot" and "helianthoides" means "sunflower-like." So these guys have a lot of tube feet, and they use them to run and feed. Imagine how fast we could run if we had more than two feet and could co-ordinate them this well:
So, when these guys (gals?) grow up, they'll be at least half a meter in diameter with 20-24 arms. With all those tube feet, they'll be Speedy Gonzales! In fact, they will be the terror of the intertidal--big, fast, and voracious. Anything that can't get out of their way will be eaten.
We air-breathing land mammals should be grateful that echinoderms never managed to get out of the sea. Can you imagine this monster chasing you down a dark alley, or climbing through your bedroom window?
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:
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.
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.
The disease progresses very rapidly, and within an hour a star in this condition had pulled off one arm and was working on another.
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:
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.