West Coast
An abundance of sunflower sea stars before the outbreak of “sea star wasting disease” off the coast of Canada. NEIL MCDANIEL

‘This is shocking.’ An undersea plague is obliterating a key ocean species

An “underwater zombie apocalypse.” That’s how wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos of the University of California (UC), Davis, describes “sea star wasting disease,” a blight that has decimated more than 20 species of sea stars from Mexico to Alaska since 2013.

Now, a new study by Gaydos and colleagues has more bad news: The disease has hit the sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides)—a key predator within kelp forests—hardest of all. This once-common species has vanished from the majority of its range, sending shock waves through the ecosystems it once called home. The team also found a worrying association between warmer ocean temperatures and the severity of the outbreak, suggesting climate change could exacerbate future marine epidemics.

“This is shocking,” says marine ecologist Mark Carr of UC Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study. “This is not just a population reduction, this is virtually the loss of a key species over thousands of miles. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

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