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Oceans: Researchers identify starfish-killing virus

Mutation or environmental changes may have triggered recent epidemic that has wiped out entire populations

This is a SSWD-affected star. The fatal disease leads to behavioral changes, lesions, loss of appendages, and disintegration. Credit: Photo by Neil McDaniel.

This is a SSWD-affected star. The fatal disease leads to behavioral changes, lesions, loss of appendages, and disintegration. Photo credit: Photo, Neil McDaniel.

Staff Report

FRISCO — With 10 million viruses in every drop of seawater, it wasn’t easy to identify the pathogen that’s caused a recent widespread die-off of starfish along North America’s Pacific Coast. Already, entire populations have disappeared in less than two years — 20 different species, from Alaska to Baja, have been affected.

But using museum collections, researchers from Cornell University and the California Science now say they can attribute the mass mortality to a Densovirus that has been present in echinoderms like sea stars and urchins for at least 72 years.

The study suggests the disease may have recently risen to epidemic levels because of sea star overpopulation, environmental changes, or mutation of the virus. The results may help marine biologists as they try to develop conservation strategies, important, because sea stars are voracious predators, with a key role in regulating the ecology of the ocean floor. Continue reading

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Deadly starfish disease explodes on Oregon coast

Northern rainbow star afflicted with sea star wasting disease. This species had virtually disappeared from central California kelp forests as of February 2014. Photo: Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

Northern rainbow star afflicted with sea star wasting disease. This species had virtually disappeared from central California kelp forests as of February 2014. Photo: Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS.

Biologists fully expecting local extinctions

Staff Report

FRISCO — As scientists continue to puzzle over the cause of a devastating starfish disease, the outbreak this month spread rapidly north along the coast of Oregon, where ocean experts are now expecting a widespread die-off with some local extinctions of starfish possible.

Sea star wasting syndrome is a traumatic process in which, over the course of a week or less, the sea stars begin to lose legs, disintegrate, ultimately die and rot. They sometimes physically tear their bodies apart. Various epidemics of the syndrome have been observed in the past, but none of this extent or severity, according to information released by Oregon State University. Continue reading

Oceans: Does tagging aquatic animals affect behavior?

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A female loggerhead sea turtle equipped with two tags heads for the Gulf of Mexico from a beach in Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Kristen Hart/USGS.

New study could help scientists come up with better tagging techniques

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Well-meaning scientists have long been tagging all sorts of critters to try and get a better idea of where they go to feed, breed or just hang out. The data from such studies helps inform conservation planning, but it turns out the tags may have a negative impact on at least some aquatic animals.

In a new study, American and Canadian researchers quantified the energy cost to aquatic animals when they carry satellite tags, video cameras and other research instruments.

Studying fiberglass casts of sea turtles in a wind tunnel, the team found that, while most commercially available tags increased drag by less than five percent for large adult animals in the wild, these same devices increased drag by more than 100 percent on smaller or juvenile animals. Continue reading

New smartphone app to help seahorse conservation

Citizen scientists can team up with researchers to help track one of the ocean’s most enigmatic animals
Seahorses are difficult to study in the wild because of their small size and ability to blend into their surroundings. Photo: Edwin van der Sande/Guylian Seahorses of the World

Seahorses are difficult to study in the wild because of their small size and ability to blend into their surroundings. Photo: Edwin van der Sande/Guylian Seahorses of the World.

By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Marine biologists may soon have a wealth of new information about enigmatic seahorses, thanks to a new citizen science app launched by the University of British Columbia, the Zoological Society of London and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

With iSeahorse Explore, anyone, anywhere in the world can become a citizen scientist and contribute to marine conservation with a few taps of their phone. The iPhone app is designed for people to quickly log seahorse sightings whenever they encounter an animal in the wild. Continue reading

Study: Sharks crucial to coral reef health

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Sharks, apex predators of many ocean ecosystems, play a key role in maintaining coral reef health. Photo courtesy NOAA.

As apex predators, sharks play an important role in regulating ecosystems, including coral reefs

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Along with the stresses of global warming and pollution, shark fishing may be another important factor in the decline of coral reefs, according to Canadian and Australian scientists.

“Where shark numbers are reduced due to commercial fishing, there is also a decrease in the herbivorous fishes which play a key role in promoting reef health,” said Jonathan Ruppert, a recent University of Toronto PhD graduate. Ruppert was part of a team engaged in long-term monitoring of reefs off Australia’s northwest coast.

Team leader Mark Meekan, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said the study suggests that, where shark numbers are reduced, there is a fundamental change in the structure of food chains on reef. Continue reading

Oceans: Citizen scientists wanted for plankton research

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Plankton is a crucial ingredient in the soup of life.

Volunteers needed to help assess distribution of tiny ocean organisms

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — With the world’s plankton facing an uncertain future, researchers want to use citizen scientists to expand their knowledge of the ocean’s tiniest, but vitally important lifeforms.

A new project will enable people to explore the open ocean from the comfort of their own homes, diving dive hundreds of feet, and observing the unperturbed ocean and the myriad animals that inhabit the earth’s last frontier.

Plankton are a key food source at the base of the ocean food chain and play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle. Some recent studies suggest that the warming and increasing acidification of oceans will result in big changes to plankton populations. Continue reading

EPA takes small step toward addressing ocean acidification

A pteropod shell damaged by corrosive water. Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey.

A pteropod shell damaged by corrosive water. Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey.

Work group to discuss possible new water quality standards that would help assess acidification threats

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The EPA is taking a step toward tackling the issue of ocean acidification, which is leading toward a huge marine biodiversity catastrophe. The agency recently said it will task a panel of scientists to discuss a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity that requests new water quality standards to enable better detection and monitoring of acidification.

Some of the carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere is finding its way to the seas, where it’s changing the basic chemistry of the water and starting to have an impact on corals, shelfish and other marine organisms. One recent study showed exactly how ocean acidification is dissolving the shells of tiny sea snails in the Southern Ocean.

The federal government also has an interagency working group, with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies working on the issue. Continue reading

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