URI Researchers Seek Help with Sea Stars - Sailors for the Sea

URI Researchers Seek Help with Sea Stars

 July 25, 2013  | By: Oceana

It was first witnessed in 2011 when student, Caitlin DelSesto, was working on an undergraduate project featuring sea stars. While doing her research she discovered that many of Sea Stars appeared ill and died quickly in her testing tanks. They were described as slimy, mushy, and many with lesions.

Caitlin then shared her findings with her Professor, Marta Gomez-Chiarri and togther are attempting  to identify the cause of disease harming the sea star. As this is not an easy task, Brown University and Roger Williams University are also in collaboration. The researchers include; Marine Pathologist Roxanna Smolowitz , of Roger Williams, whom is analyzing the sea stars tissues, scientist, Ed Baker of the University of Rhode Island who is studying Sea Star environmental conditions and culturing the bacteria, and Brown molecular Biologist Gary Wessel who is looking at bacteria inside sea stars.

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A Healthy Sea Star. Photo from URI.

This disease seems to be affecting sea stars from New Jersey all the way to Maine. This phenomenon has gone virtually unseen due to the secluded habitat and life style of this marine creature. In the past four years there was an increase in population numbers of sea stars on the East Coast. With population increases, communities can become crowded. Stress and over-crowding, will often lead to disease transmission, which could be a contributing factor in the spread of this disease.

Although sea stars are not a keystone species, they do serve a purpose in the food web and can act as a bellwether to the health of oceans. The environment is very fragile and even smallest changes can have devastating effects. DelSesto noted to the Providence Journal “An outbreak like this happened here back in the 1990’s and on the West Coast there were similar outbreaks in the 70s and 80s, and every time the populations came back on their own. This one seems particularly severe, and climate change may be making it worse, but hopefully they’ll come back on their own this time, too.”

If you have come across a population of starfish, you can send an email to Caitlin DelSesto at cdelsesto@my.uri.edu. The report should include the exact location, the depth, the number in the population, and if the animals appear to be healthy or diseased.