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Starfish Are Committing Suicide And No One Knows Why

An ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) infected with sea star wasting disease in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Photo: Kevin Schafer/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Marine biologists are completely stunned by a recent epidemic of starfish committing suicide on the west coast.

The phenomenon, dubbed "the Wasting," has been going on for at least two years now as scientists have discovered the starfish are essentially devouring themselves along the coast, from Mexico to Alaska.

The story rose to national attention a few years ago, but scientists are now intent to solve the mystery. A recent VICE story highlighted the issue, and revealed that a virus was identified within many of the species that were dying. But that virus has been around for 70 years, so that discovery only posed more questions than answers.

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"There's some trigger, probably an environmental trigger," Rebecca Johnson, a Citizen Science Research Coordinator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco told Yahoo Travel.

A volunteer reaches over to measure two tiny baby sea stars as a mature one clings nearby to a concrete piling on Washington's Hood Canal near Poulsbo, Wash. Researchers say that there's evidence that juvenile sea stars, while not entirely immune, may be less susceptible to a virus fingered as the likely culprit of the sea star wasting disease. Photo: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

As marine biologists and scientists up and down the west coast investigate the problem, there's a way that beach-goers and tourists can help.

Take a picture of any starfish you see on the beaches of the Pacific west coast and post it to iNaturalist, an app that lets people upload photos and information for researchers to enter into a database and help track the problem.

Johnson, who is also a research associate at the academy's Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology, said there's been about 2,000 observations loaded into the app trying to identify endangered starfish, which are actually known in scientific circles as sea stars.

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"Anybody who sees something, any observation of nature could be important," Johnson said. "It's kind of like Facebook for nature."

"Everyday people, amateur observations are really important," she said.

Starfish are known to regenerate their limbs, but this epidemic is different. As VICE reporter Nathaniel Rich described, the starfish "weren't merely shedding their arms. They were tearing them off. They were tearing them off the way a man, lacking access to a sharp tool, might tear off one of his own arms: by using one arm to wrench the other out of its socket."

Melissa Miner, a marine researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz told Yahoo Travel that there has been some evidence of recovery, but the problem is far from over.

Colorful sea stars cling to the rock formations along Indian Beach, at Ecola State Park, Oreg. The photo was taken before the wasting started killing off huge numbers of starfish all along the west coast. Photo: Craig Tuttle/Corbis

"In some areas it seems that holds true," she said. "in other places it doesn't seems to hold true."

The school's researchers are heading out this month to track and count starfish and see if there's been any improvement.

Miner said the public's input on the school's tracking site SeaStarWasting.org has been hugely helpful, especially as they try to monitor thousands of miles of coastland. "One thing we encourage people to do is send pictures," she told Yahoo Travel. "We have lots and lots of people who have submitted observations. We've actually been shocked at the response we've gotten from the general public."

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The leg of this purple ochre sea star in Oregon is disintegrating, as it dies from sea star wasting syndrome. Photo by Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman, courtesy of Oregon State University

Miner and her fellow UCSC researchers and students have been searching for a cause for two years now. They've looked at environmental factors, changes in water temperatures, everything else they could think of. "There was nothing on that broad scale that really popped out," she said.

"At this point we're just kind of watching to see whether recovery occurs," she said. "We're kind of in a wait and see what happens. I don't think anyone is talking about extinction at this point."

"lt will take a lot of time," she said.