Starfish Mystery Solved

By Dennis O’Toole

Starfish300As we’ve previously reported, the Oregon starfish die off is terrifying and sad, despite not getting the airplay that the honeybee die off gets. Starfish have been dying by the thousands all up and down the west coast, and Oregon has been a hotbed of the destructive and little understood disease that’s causing the ecosystem meltdown. Now, however, researchers claim to have figured out what’s been referred to as the starfish wasting disease.

Turns out it was “sea star associated densovirus” the whole time.


Sick and healthy starfish had their tissue analyzed, by a team lead by Ian Hewson of Cornell University.  They then sequenced the DNA of the viruses they had narrowed down as possible culprits, and injected them back into healthy starfish. The result, it is to be understood by their breathless description, was something like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where the guy picks the wrong cup.

Making things even more fascinating, not to mention filled with Nazi adventure, the Cornell team found evidence of the densovirus in starfish specimens dating back to the 1940s.  But it had not been killing starfish until very recently, which is why it had been overlooked until now.

We still don’t know what caused the virus that had been around for so long and was relatively harmless into a killing machine that has been ripping through starfish populations. But the new study will hopefully lead to treatments or a cure.  Hewson has speculated that antibiotics might be used to build up resistant starfish in aquariums that can be released into the wild to anchor the population.

Research will continue, and new starfish generations will be closely monitored for the presence of the densovirus.  It is to be hoped they will rebound as sharply as their predecessors have been dying.