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Scientists pinpoint probable cause of massive sea star die off

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 2:43 PM - A mysterious disease is wiping out sea star populations in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico -- and scientists may have finally pinpointed the cause.

Back in May, the disease -- which causes sea stars to disintegrate -- was linked to a pathogen.

Now, a team of researches have announced that 'sea star wasting syndrome' may have something to do with warming oceans.

It's speculated that the sea stars are becoming infected with a disease that can grow and spread easily in the Pacific Ocean.

And the warmer water could be doing more than causing the disease to spread: Scientists say it could be compromising the immune systems of the sea stars as well, making them more susceptible to infection.

A team monitoring the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington says that over 40 percent of sea stars in the area are currently infected and that number is expected to grow as the summer progresses.

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Millions of sea stars have died from the disease since last summer.

It was first reported in August 2013 upon the grim discovery that sea stars were disintegrating on the ocean floor, turning into "goo" by the time they reached the lab for analysis.

Donna Gibbs, a research diver and taxonomist, told The Canadian Press that the unknown epidemic has been killing off the starfish at an alarming rate.

"They’re gone. It’s amazing," she told the news agency back in May.

"Whatever hit them, it was like wildfire and just wiped them out."

Other species of sea stars have been affected as well, resulting in a massive die-off involving millions of creatures between British Columbia and Mexico.

While the disease largely remains a mystery, scientists do know that it is an efficient killer with a mortality rate of about 95 percent.

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