A. Forbesi, the common sea star, are dying out in New England and possibly along the east coast. Help us figure out why and how to save them!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

P. Miniata

P. miniata:

Unfortunately, soon after the health of the p. miniata deteriorated as well.  It remains to be seen whether the forbesi did in fact “infect” the miniata with their “disease,” but we will keep them separate from now on.

Next:  collect more and leave at GSO and in a separate tank from the miniata at Brown

My A. forbesi: Observations on 6/19

The last starfish, which had previously been missing, reappeared in the tank with a detached arm and the beginnings of symptoms similar to the other A. forbesi
Several of the P. Miniata starfish-both female and male-had begun displaying symptoms similar to the sick forbesi-removed sick ones form tank
White covering developing on arms
Insides coming out of arms and from stomach
Emailed Ed Baker with picture of forbesi arms with innards coming out and asked to compare to his memory of the forbesi that died in the GSO water table last year

My A. forbesi: observations on 6/14

Checked starfish; found the one that had been missing
One, over the past few days, slowly shed its arms and died, but had no symptoms of the "disease“
The one that had been missing now has some spines missing, and every spine is surrounded with the white dots, which are now even scattered throughout the flesh in between the spines
Plans for A. forbesi:  take the white spots and look at them under a microscope; control = spines/flesh without the spots
Unfortunately on 6/16 the starfish disappeared again and was later found dead in the filter L so I now need to collect some more to do this experiment

My A. forbesi: the malady

Of the two brown starfish observed on 6/6, one had an interesting phenomenon:  on the "spikes," some were developing a strange gel-like covering and were easier to scrape off, exposing the inside of the starfish
The spikes that were beginning to develop the gelly-like substance had a series of tiny bright white spots around the radial edges of the spike situated on the brown flesh in between the spikes
These gel-covered spikes were observed in clusters along the arms, more often at the most distal parts and the most proximal parts than the middle length of the arms
The other brown starfish had a few of these “spotted” spikes, but were more randomly spaced with only a few clusters at the tips of a couple of the arms

My A. forbesi: Observations on 6/6

When I took the sick starfish from the tank today, it was ostracized in the opposite corner of the tank form the other three, which were close to each other on the other side and bottom
When all the detached arms are placed together, they attempt to move away from one another
Two of the remaining starfish are browner than the other (which is more purple and orange
The purpley starfish looked completely normal.

My A. forbesi: how they fared

1 developed symptoms and died
From onset of symptoms to death: 8-10 hours
1 developed symptoms and disappeared to be found later in filter of tank
1 disappeared and was later found with symptoms
1 died without developing symptoms but did lose its arms, possibly as a defense mechanism

My A. forbesi

Collected 8 total- 4 in GSO water table; 4 in tank in lab
Small to medium size-all found on docks at Allen Harbor in Quonset
Not found at any beaches or in any tidal pools-not rocky enough or deep enough, perhaps
Wickford Harbor
Fort Wetherill
Collected on 5/29/12
6/6: one began growing lesions
By the end of the day, all its arms had fallen off except 2 attached to the central disk
Died by morning
6/6: checked starfish at GSO: all were fine

William Grossman's Thoughts

I am one of the collectors at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.  Yes, we absolutely have noticed the die off since last fall.  The first I noticed anything was when I collected about 100 animals from the Cape Cod Canal and they all died in a matter of days in our flow through system.  We even went out and dredged in many of our more productive areas within Vineyard and Nantucket sounds.  There were areas thick with crepidula and other foods, still with no signs of stars.  We have noticed small stars begining to show up in the Cape Cod Canal and out in the sound about 2 months ago. Today I collected about a dozen 3" to 4" animals out in Vineyard Sound.  This has created quite some talk here, especially with some of the summer courses, such as Embryology, Frontiers in Reproductions and Physiology. Our aquatic vet Amy Hancock I believe has taken cultures.  

Another person who has had some experience with stars is a gentleman named Martk who runs Biomes out of RI.  He has a closed system and found new stars died within a day after being put into any tanks which had previously held asterias forbesi.

I have seen Asterias vulgaris in Cape Cod Bay.  Perhaps the cooler water did not have the same effects.  

Chris Littlefield's Thoughts

Head of the Block Island chapter of the RI Nature Conservancy
“I was not aware of that but it’s good news for shellfish. I wonder if it is related to flashy rainfall events? I know that when they migrate into the shallows in the summer here that a lot get washed up on the beach but I had not heard of an actual die off
I know there are a lot in certain places here and in the coastal ponds. We get really large ones in Great Salt Pond and I have seen them aggregate in certain spots, presumably for spawning?”

Jon Witman's Thoughts

Brown Professor
I have heard a little about this in S. New England, but nothing from the gulf of Maine where all my sea star baseline data is from. It could be low salinity or disease

Kevin Cute's Thoughts

(Aquatic Invasive Species or AIS monitoring)

We focus our sampling activities on floating docks where you might expect to find Asterias forbesi but I don’t recall having noticed them in abundance
We are however expanding our monitoring this year to include eelgrass beds and bulkheads at the Port of Providence and Quonset/Davisville, so we’ll have increased opportunities to keep an eye open on your behalf
I’ll pass the word along to my monitoring network to keep an eye out for large populations of A. forbesi and to record any such instances on their filed data sheets

Mark Bertness' Thoughts

Marine ecologist at Brown (EEB Dept. chair)
There is no mystery here. This happens every few years. Starfish have no way to osmoregulate and have no way to bail out freshwater. That's why there are no freshwater starfish, sea urchins or corals
What happens in Narragansett Bay is that pelagic baby starfish settle in the bay. They may be fine for a few years, but then we'll have a spring with intense concentrated rain that leaves a large lens of freshwater covering the bay that coincides with spring (large) tides. The tide goes out, exposing the starfish to freshwater, which flows into the starfish water vascular system and they pop like balloons

Ed Baker's Thoughts

Tank caretaker at GSO
GSO tank:  "[last fall] in Dr Wessel's sea star tanks the die off began and slowly rolled through the population (2 months) of the tank while the tank next to it had no mortalities in its sea star community
They received the same water supply and the sea stars had been held for a couple of years in the other tank.  It would seem that the malady is not readily vectored by the sea water.  Also, both tanks experienced low flow events from time to time (obstructed valve) where they probably experienced low DO and an increase in temperature. 
One could see ahead of time the onset of the malady where the arm(s) would become irregular in shape and become narrower close to the body.  Eventually, the arm(s) would detach from the body but seemed to "live" for a couple days; evidenced by moving tube feet
Upon death the arm(s) or what was left of the body would flatten and begin to disintegrate. I did see a lesion on the top side of an arm where the flesh had "blossomed" into a 1/2 diameter dome and had a cauliflower type appearance
Upon touch it was very soft and this consistency extended into the flesh of the arm much like a rotten spot on fruit. 
Progression of Asterias forbesi from normal to deceased from "illness"


decaying spots on arms

white spots along radial edges of spines and gel-like covering of spines with white spots

innards leak out of decayed spots on arms and arms fall off

arms fall off and wiggle around for a while, then die completely

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE PROBLEM:  A. forbesi, the common sea star, are dying in New England and possibly all along the east coast.  Help us figure out why and how to save them.

Hello and welcome to Asterias forbesi central, the blog about the "Forbes sea star" (or starfish).  It is the common brown/purple starfish found along the East coast:

I am a Brown University rising sophomore, research assistant, and NSF and EPSCoR-funded SURF fellow in Dr. Gary Wessel's molecular oogenesis lab (studying the development of eggs, primarily at the molecular level): http://www.brown.edu/Research/Wessel_Lab/#.

One of my projects this summer is to determine the cause behind the die-off of this beloved marine creature in New England.  It began when Gary mentioned that he heard from someone at MBL of Wood's Hole that the collectors couldn't find enough sea stars to send off to labs (like ours) to study them (we use starfish and sea urchins as model organisms to study development).  I went down to the docks at Allen Harbor in Quonset, Rhode Island near my home in North Kingstown that very night with my trusty net and bucket, hoping to find some starfish to study at the lab-but alas!  There was only one measly, runty starfish to collect.  I've seen starfish at that very harbor on those very pillars my entire life in relatively high abundance, so I was puzzled.  My goal now is to find out what's going on with these starfish-whether there is an easy explanation or a complex one, whether there are other implications of a starfish die-off on the ecosystem and its denizens, whether humans will be affected by it (is there something in the mussels that the starfish-and we-eat that is harming and killing the forbesi?), and whether we can do anything to help the starfish get back on their many tube feet.

Come one, come all to A. forbesi central and put your two cents in.