skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 11:00 PM ET on Friday, April 12 until 2:00 AM ET on Saturday, April 13 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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 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.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1735607 1737372
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Date Published:
Journal Name:
PloS one
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. In recent years, a massive mortality event has killed millions of sea stars, of many different species, along the Pacific coast of North America. This disease event, known as ‘sea star wasting disease’ (SSWD), is linked to viral infection. In one affected sea star (Pisaster ochraceus), previous work had identified that the elongation factor 1-αlocus (EF1A) harbored an intronic insertion allele that is lethal when homozygous yet appears to be maintained at moderate frequency in populations through increased fitness for heterozygotes. The environmental conditions supporting this increased fitness are unknown, but overdominance is often associated with disease. Here, we evaluate populations ofP. ochraceusto identify the relationship between SSWD and EF1A genotype. Our data suggest that there may be significantly decreased occurrence of SSWD in individuals that are heterozygous at this locus. These results suggest further studies are warranted to understand the functional relationship between diversity at EF1A and survival inP. ochraceus.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    The recent outbreak of Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) is one of the largest marine epizootics in history, but the host-associated microbial community changes specific to disease progression have not been characterized. Here, we sampled the microbiomes of ochre sea stars,Pisaster ochraceus, through time as animals stayed healthy or became sick and died with SSWD. We found community-wide differences in the microbiomes of sick and healthy sea stars, changes in microbial community composition through disease progression, and a decrease in species richness of the microbiome in late stages of SSWD. Known beneficial taxa (Pseudoalteromonasspp.) decreased in abundance at symptom onset and through disease progression, while known pathogenic (Tenacibaculumspp.) and putatively opportunistic bacteria (Polaribacterspp. andPhaeobacterspp.) increased in abundance in early and late disease stages. Functional profiling revealed microbes more abundant in healthy animals performed functions that inhibit growth of other microbes, including pathogen detection, biosynthesis of secondary metabolites, and degradation of xenobiotics. Changes in microbial composition with disease onset and progression suggest that a microbial imbalance of the host could lead to SSWD or be a consequence of infection by another pathogen. This work highlights the importance of the microbiome in SSWD and also suggests that a healthy microbiome may help confer resistance to SSWD.

    more » « less
  3. Thuesen, Erik V. (Ed.)
    Long-term datasets can reveal otherwise undetectable ecological trends, illuminating the historical context of contemporary ecosystem states. We used two decades (1997–2019) of scientific trawling data from a subtidal, benthic site in Puget Sound, Washington, USA to test for gradual trends and sudden shifts in total sea star abundance across 11 species. We specifically assessed whether this community responded to the sea star wasting disease (SSWD) epizootic, which began in 2013. We sampled at depths of 10, 25, 50 and 70 m near Port Madison, WA, and obtained long-term water temperature data. To account for species-level differences in SSWD susceptibility, we divided our sea star abundance data into two categories, depending on the extent to which the species is susceptible to SSWD, then conducted parallel analyses for high-susceptibility and moderate-susceptibility species. The abundance of high-susceptibility sea stars declined in 2014 across depths. In contrast, the abundance of moderate-susceptibility species trended downward throughout the years at the deepest depths– 50 and 70 m–and suddenly declined in 2006 across depths. Water temperature was positively correlated with the abundance of moderate-susceptibility species, and uncorrelated with high-susceptibility sea star abundance. The reported emergence of SSWD in Washington State in the summer of 2014 provides a plausible explanation for the subsequent decline in abundance of high-susceptibility species. However, no long-term stressors or mortality events affecting sea stars were reported in Washington State prior to these years, leaving the declines we observed in moderate-susceptibility species preceding the 2013–2015 SSWD epizootic unexplained. These results suggest that the subtidal sea star community in Port Madison is dynamic, and emphasizes the value of long-term datasets for evaluating patterns of change. 
    more » « less
  4. Disturbances such as disease can reshape communities through interruption of ecological interactions. Changes to population demographics alter how effectively a species performs its ecological role. While a population may recover in density, this may not translate to recovery of ecological function. In 2013, a sea star wasting syndrome outbreak caused mass mortality of the keystone predator Pisaster ochraceus on the North American Pacific coast. We analyzed sea star counts, biomass, size distributions, and recruitment from long-term intertidal monitoring sites from San Diego to Alaska to assess regional trends in sea star recovery following the outbreak. Recruitment, an indicator of population recovery, has been spatially patchy and varied within and among regions of the coast. Despite sea star counts approaching predisease numbers, sea star biomass, a measure of predation potential on the mussel Mytilus californianus, has remained low. This indicates that post-outbreak populations have not regained their full predation pressure. The regional variability in percent of recovering sites suggested differences in factors promoting sea star recovery between regions but did not show consistent patterns in postoutbreak recruitment on a coast-wide scale. These results shape predictions of where changes in community composition are likely to occur in years following the disease outbreak and provide insight into how populations of keystone species resume their ecological roles following mortality-inducing disturbances. 
    more » « less
  5. The recent collapse of predatory sunflower sea stars ( Pycnopodia helianthoides ) owing to sea star wasting disease (SSWD) is hypothesized to have contributed to proliferation of sea urchin barrens and losses of kelp forests on the North American west coast. We used experiments and a model to test whether restored Pycnopodia populations may help recover kelp forests through their consumption of nutritionally poor purple sea urchins ( Strongylocentrotus purpuratus ) typical of barrens. Pycnopodia consumed 0.68 S. purpuratus d −1 , and our model and sensitivity analysis shows that the magnitude of recent Pycnopodia declines is consistent with urchin proliferation after modest sea urchin recruitment, and even small Pycnopodia recoveries could generally lead to lower densities of sea urchins that are consistent with kelp-urchin coexistence. Pycnopodia seem unable to chemically distinguish starved from fed urchins and indeed have higher predation rates on starved urchins owing to shorter handling times. These results highlight the importance of Pycnopodia in regulating purple sea urchin populations and maintaining healthy kelp forests through top-down control. The recovery of this important predator to densities commonly found prior to SSWD, whether through natural means or human-assisted reintroductions, may therefore be a key step in kelp forest restoration at ecologically significant scales. 
    more » « less