Laura Anderson/Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring Lab
A starfish afflicted with seastar wasting syndrome, which starts with a lesion and ends in the animal's complete disintegration.

Starfish Turning to Goo! 8 Alarming Animal Illnesses and Die-Offs


At a time of year during which extra thanks and gratitude are foremost in our hearts and minds, some sobering facts may demonstrate what we have to lose and what is at stake when it comes to the unprecedented changes happening around Mother Earth. 

The unavoidable truth is that animals are sickening and in some cases dying. It’s that simple. What isn’t simple is why.

Over the past year or two, across species, in disparate geographical regions, on land or under sea, animals of particular species are perishing in unprecedented numbers. Others are showing up ill, with strange sores and other signs of disease. Even more confounding are those that are emaciated and starving, with no sign of disease.

Many potential causes have been put forth, ranging from radiation generated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster stemming from Japan’s 2011 9.0 earthquake and devastating tidal wave, to climate-change-induced ocean warming. In some cases, causes were determined, but in many instances, everyone is still speculating as to the why and how. What is certain is that these deaths are occurring. Below is a partial list of the most dramatic die-offs, illnesses and strandings.

An afflicted starfish. (Photo: Laura Anderson/Rocky Intertidal Lab UC Santa Cruz/AP Photo)

1. Starfish Turning to Goo

We’ll start with the most horrific one first, just to get it out there. Scientists all along the West Coast of Turtle Island in the U.S. and Canada have noticed a mysterious die-off of starfish. But Pisaster ochraceus and its fellow starfish don’t just die; they turn to goo.

“The disease—known as sea star wasting syndrome—begins as a small lesion, and eventually results in the loss of limbs and ultimate disintegration and death of the leggy animal,” reported on November 8.

"They essentially melt in front of you," Pete Raimondi, chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of California, Santa Cruz's Long Marine Lab, told The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

While this disease has afflicted starfish in the past, this time it is much more widespread. Pisaster in particular has been decimated, with 95 percent dying. They are a major predator of mussels, and the die-off of the 20-inch-wide, orange-and-purple starfish species could cause mussel populations to skyrocket, throwing off the ecological balance of the tidal pools, marine biologists fear.

This die-off is happening not only up and down Turtle Island’s west coast from California through British Columbia and Alaska, but also on the Atlantic side, where a University of Rhode Island grad student conducting research last summer noticed all her specimens dying. In fact attempts to study the sea star have been hampered by a lack of specimens, dead or alive.

Scientists say that a population explosion a few years ago may have sparked a disease because of stressors on of overpopulation.

"Now that the disease is in the environment, it may be hard to get the population back to normal," URI Professor Marta Gomez-Chiarri in a media release posted on "Diseases don't just completely disappear after a massive die-off."

The trigger remains a mystery, however.

Bull moose (Photo: Thinkstock)

2. Moose Numbers Plummeting

The New York Times wrote recently of an unexplained moose die-off. From Montana and British Columbia, to New Hampshire and Minnesota, moose are disappearing, and no one knows why.

Of Minnesota’s two distinct moose populations in different areas, for instance, one set has dropped from 4,000 in the 1990s to fewer than 100, The New York Times reported on October 14. The second moose population has fallen 25 percent a year and is now down to 3,000 from a former 8,000, The New York Times said. The dual decline has prompted wildlife officials to suspend all moose hunting.

In Minnesota the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have all canceled their moose hunts this year pending some insight into the drop in numbers.

RELATED: Minnesota Tribes Cancel Moose Hunt as Animals' Population Plummets

Heat stress and climate-change-induced environmental changes that allow parasites to thrive at the expense of the animals are among the theories that scientists are pondering, The New York Times said. Flourishing wolves may also be a factor, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Either way, the die-off is “massive,” The Christian Science Monitor said.

Rescued sea lion pups at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (Photo courtesy PMMC)

3. Sea Lion Pups Starving

So many starving sea lion pups washed up onto California’s beaches this past spring that the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) declared it an Unusual Mortality Event, "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response,” as defined in the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

“Consistent findings in the sea lions are emaciation and dehydration with most animals very underweight for their age,” NOAA said on its website in May. “While intake rates have slowed in recent weeks, the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network continues to rescue and rehabilitate animals and has large numbers of animals still in care.”

As of May 2013, nearly 500 pups had washed up in Los Angeles County alone—far surpassing 2009, when just under 200 pups fell ill during the entire year. Afflicted pups were also found in Santa Barbara, Ventura , Orange and San Diego counties, NOAA said. Five rescue centers in Southern California had admitted 517 pups by March 13, reported Wired.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, alone handled 340 rescue calls, the most that the non-profit organization had ever received. The spring saw a tenfold increase in sea lion patients, with 167 pups being cared for simultaneously at one point. One of them, which the center named Grace, weighed just 26 pounds—half of what she should have weighed—when she was rescued on February 26, the center said in July. The animal was so debilitated that it was unable to eat on its own for two months. A second one, Evanora, was found on March 13 at 22 pounds, with face lacerations in addition to starvation, the center said.

“It was the most catastrophic event we’ve ever seen,” said Keith Matassa, executive director of the center in a July 22 statement. “We did everything we could to rescue each animal in need, and have been working tirelessly for the last six months to get them all well enough to return home.”

The strandings began to subside in mid-May, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council blog On Earth, more than 1,400 sea lion pups had been taken in by rehabilitation facilities in Southern California. One third of those did not survive, and the number that died offshore without making it to a beach remains unknown.

While the mass strandings did not threaten the 310,000-population species’ survival by any means, what happens to the animals can give clues as to what is happening in the ocean in general, David Bard, director of the Los Angeles Marine Mammal Care Center, told On Earth.

Authorities are still trying to figure out what that is.

4. Polar Bears With Alopecia

In April 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began recording large numbers of polar bears with skin lesions and fur loss in a population that ranges from Barrow, Alaska, east to the Tuktoyuktuk region of Canada. That has continued through this year. Experts suspect a pathogen but have not found it yet.

A tranquilized polar bear with a patch of alopecia on its neck. (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

Months earlier, in summer 2011, a huge number of dead, ringed seals with hair loss and skin sores were laid out along Alaska’s Arctic coast—so many that on December 20, 2011, NOAA declared it an Unusual Mortality Event. In addition, the USGS reported a high incidence of non-viable eggs in nests of greater white-fronted geese, as well as elevated embryo mortality in those and other birds in the Alaskan Arctic.

Musk oxen and baby. (Photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

5. Musk Ox Mortality

In the same report, the USGS also noted a 20 percent to 30 percent mortality rate in musk ox in northwestern Alaska during mid- to late summer 2012.

Given the magnitude and timing of the observed mortality, and the fact that these muskoxen are in good nutritional condition in late winter, a pathogen is suspected to be contributing to the high losses observed,” the USGS said. “Additionally, copper deficiencies have been identified in other Alaskan muskox, which can result in compromised immune function.”

Though studies are ongoing, that too remains a mystery.

Dolphins died in unprecedented numbers over the summer from a measles-like virus. (Photo: WTKR)

6. Dolphin Measles

Also this past summer, bottlenose dolphins began dying off Virginia Beach at the highest rate in 26 years, The Virginian-Pilot reported in August. Between July and October, 331 dolphins died, according to the Associated Press. The number dropped to 31 in October after a high of 172 in August, the AP said. The normal average for the summer is 23.

However, the die-off didn’t stop there, and it included more than dolphins. The measles-like illness morbillivirus was determined as the cause, and it seemed to travel south when the dolphins migrated toward Florida. In total along the coast, 753 dolphins had died in the worst outbreak ever recorded, said NBC News. The virus was also spotted in two whale species—three humpback and two pygmy whales carrying the virus were found stranded and decaying, NBC News reported, though tests were still ongoing to determine whether the illness was their cause of death.

Herring bleeding from the gills, fins and eyeballs off British Columbia. (Photo: Alexandra Morton)

7. Bleeding Herring

In August a marine biologist in British Columbia alerted Canadian authorities that she was seeing huge numbers of herring bleeding from the gills, eyeballs and fins.

“I have never seen fish that looked this bad,” marine biologist Alexandra Morton told the news site 24 hours Vancouver on August 11. “If you look only in one place, you really can’t say whether it’s happening along the whole coast … the concern is these are migratory fish. They don’t stay in one place.”

She had been monitoring the phenomenon, suspecting a virus, since 2011. By summer 2013 she had "found the apparent infection had spread—instead of their usual silver color the fish had eyes, tails, underbellies, gills and faces plastered with the sickly red color,” the news site reported.

To date, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has not come up with any answers.

8. Elk Felled by Pond Scum

In September authorities made a grisly discovery on a New Mexico ranch: 100 dead elk in one square mile, mysteriously felled overnight.

At first Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, transmitted by bug bites (though not to humans), was thought to be the cause. But testing on tissue samples and water supply showed the culprit to be toxic algae, otherwise known simply as pond scum.

Water taken from a fiberglass livestock tank near where the elk met their end, yielded traces of one type of blue-green algae, Anabaena, which blooms naturally in warm, standing water but produces a deadly neurotoxin, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican on October 22.

“I think they spent morning feeding,” said Kerry Mower, a wildlife disease specialist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, to the newspaper. “Then, as ungulates will do, they went to rest. They stopped to take a drink on the way. The trough was in a sort of natural corridor that goes to shady trees on a hill.”

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