Wasting disease and static environmental variables drive sea star assemblages in the northern Gulf of Alaska

Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
By: , and 



Sea stars are ecologically important in rocky intertidal habitats where they can play an apex predator role, completely restructuring communities. The recent sea star die-off throughout the eastern Pacific, known as Sea Star Wasting Disease, has prompted a need to understand spatial and temporal patterns of sea star assemblages and the environmental variables that structure these assemblages. We examined spatial and temporal patterns in sea star assemblages (composition and density) across regions in the northern Gulf of Alaska and assessed the role of seven static environmental variables (distance to freshwater inputs, tidewater glacial presence, exposure to wave action, fetch, beach slope, substrate composition, and tidal range) in influencing sea star assemblage structure before and after sea star declines. Environmental variables correlated with sea star distribution can serve as proxies to environmental stressors, such as desiccation, attachment, and wave action. Intertidal sea star surveys were conducted annually from 2005 to 2018 at five sites in each of four regions that were between 100 and 420 km apart across the northern Gulf of Alaska. In the pre-disease years, assemblages were different among regions, correlated mostly to tidewater glacier presence, fetch, and tidal range. The assemblages after wasting disease were different from those before the event with lower diversity and lower density. In addition to these declines, the disease manifested itself at different times across the northern Gulf of Alaska and did not impact all species uniformly across sites. Post sea star wasting, there was a shift in the environmental variables that correlated with sea star structure, resulting in sea star assemblages being highly correlated with slope, fetch, and tidal range. In essence, sea star wasting disease resulted in a shift in the sea star assemblage that is now correlating with a slightly different combination of environmental variables. Understanding the delicate interplay of environmental variables that influence sea star assemblages could expand knowledge of the habitat preferences and tolerance ranges of important and relatively unstudied species within the northern Gulf of Alaska.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Wasting disease and static environmental variables drive sea star assemblages in the northern Gulf of Alaska
Series title Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
DOI 10.1016/j.jembe.2019.151209
Volume 520
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center, Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description 151209, 10 p.
First page 1
Last page 10
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Northern Gulf of Alaska
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