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When marine researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz traveled to Alaska this summer, they noticed something unsettling in the waters near Sitka: populations of starfish were losing their arms. Then other reports started pouring in to their laboratory: from Southern California to British Columbia, uncounted numbers of one of America’s best known sea species appeared to be disintegrating.
It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish…
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