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Research Technical Report

Disease Epidemic and a Marine Heat Wave Are Associated with the Continental-Scale Collapse of a Pivotal Predator (Pycnopodia helianthoides)

Harvell, C.D., D. Montecino-Latorre, J.M. Caldwell, J.M. Burt, K. Bosley, A. Keller, S.F. Heron, A.K. Salomon, L. Lee, O. Pontier, C. Pattengill-Semmens, and J.K. Gaydos (January 2019)

Science Advances 5:eaau7042; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau7042

Multihost infectious disease outbreaks have endangered wildlife, causing extinction of frogs and endemic birds, and widespread declines of bats, corals, and abalone. Since 2013, a sea star wasting disease has affected >20 sea star species from Mexico to Alaska. The common, predatory sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), shown to be highly susceptible to sea star wasting disease, has been extirpated across most of its range. Diver surveys conducted in shallow nearshore waters (n = 10,956; 2006–2017) from California to Alaska and deep offshore (55 to 1280 m) trawl surveys from California to Washington (n = 8968; 2004–2016) reveal 80 to 100% declines across a ~3000-km range. Furthermore, timing of peak declines in nearshore waters coincided with anomalously warm sea surface temperatures. The rapid, widespread decline of this pivotal subtidal predator threatens its persistence and may have large ecosystem-level consequences.