Family Relations in Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

In areas where the sunflower sea star population was hit with the wasting syndrome that spread rapidly through the Salish Sea, other species have been similarly affected. The majority of those species impacted by the sunflower star mortality event are members of the same sea star family, which includes the familiar intertidal ochre star, and the mottled and rainbow stars. The next most closely related sea star family includes the major sea star predator of sunflower stars – the morning sun star, Solaster dawsoni, which was eating affected sunflower stars (as seen in the feature photo) and were evidently impacted by these “meals.”

blood star
blood star

When the Howe Sound dive team visited a reef off Gower Point at the southern extreme end of the Sunshine
Coast on October 16, most of the sunflower sea stars had already died, but their close family relatives, the giant pink starfish, Pisaster brevispinis, were moving into the reef, eating necrotic debris, and rapidly began wasting away as a result, as seen in the video below. This contrasts with an unrelated sea star, the blood star, Henricia leviuscula, that apparently was not affected by the wasting syndrome, similarly to the unrelated leather star.

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With the support of Sitka Foundation, the Vancouver Aquarium is embarking on a two-year project to train divers to identify marine life in Howe Sound, as part of our commitment to the research and conservation of this area. The information they glean on Howe Sound’s sea life will be presented in this series of blogs, and will be used to educate students taking part in the Aquarium’s school programs and AquaVan visits to inspire the next generation to keep learning more about marine biodiversity in British Columbia.