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Title: Large-scale impacts of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) on intertidal sea stars and implications for recovery
Disease outbreaks can have substantial impacts on wild populations, but the often patchy or anecdotal evidence of these impacts impedes our ability to understand outbreak dynamics. Recently however, a severe disease outbreak occurred in a group of very well-studied organisms±sea stars along the west coast of North America. We analyzed nearly two decades of data from a coordinated monitoring effort at 88 sites ranging from southern British Columbia to San Diego, California along with 2 sites near Sitka, Alaska to better understand the effects of sea star wasting disease (SSWD) on the keystone intertidal predator, Pisaster ochraceus. Quantitative surveys revealed unprecedented declines of P. ochraceus in 2014 and 2015 across nearly the entire geographic range of the species. The intensity of the impact of SSWD was not uniform across the affected area, with proportionally greater population declines in the southern regions relative to the north. The degree of population decline was unrelated to pre-outbreak P. ochraceus density, although these factors have been linked in other well-documented disease events. While elevated seawater temperatures were not broadly linked to the initial emergence of SSWD, anomalously high seawater temperatures in 2014 and 2015 might have exacerbated the disease's impact. Both before and after the onset of the SSWD outbreak, we documented higher recruitment of P. ochraceus in the north more » than in the south, and while some juveniles are surviving (as evidenced by transition of recruitment pulses to larger size classes), post-SSWD survivorship is lower than during pre-SSWD periods. In hindsight, our data suggest that the SSWD event defied prediction based on two factors found to be important in other marine disease events, sea water temperature and population density, and illustrate the importance of surveillance of natural populations as one element of an integrated approach to marine disease ecology. Low levels of SSWD-symptomatic sea stars are still present throughout the impacted range, thus the outlook for population recovery is uncertain. « less
Award ID(s):
1735607 1737372
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
PloS one
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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