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Scientists Find Out What Killed Millions of Starfish

A new study shows warmer ocean temperatures are likely responsible for the mass die-off, threatening the biodiversity of marine life from Alaska to Mexico.

An epidemic swept across North America’s West Coast three years ago, but most people hardly noticed.

That’s because the disease targeted starfish—millions of starfish.

From Alaska to Baja California, starfish populations have been decimated by sea star wasting syndrome, a disease that turns the darlings of the tide pool world into heaping piles of goo within days of exposure.

Scientists have observed wasting events hitting coastal starfish populations before, but nothing like this epidemic, which researchers are calling the single largest, most geographically widespread marine disease ever recorded.

Sea stars, or starfish, are what’s known as a keystone species, important to maintaining biodiversity in marine environments. But an epidemic that swept across the West Coast killed millions of the multi-limbed animals—wiping out up to 95 percent of populations in some regions. Now, a new study is showing warming ocean temperatures might make mass die-offs more severe.

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