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

      Mitchell, Timothy James; Konar, Brenda; Iken, Katrin; Kelley, Amanda (2019-05)
      Sea stars are ecologically important in rocky intertidal habitats. The recent (starting 2013) sea star die-off attributed to sea star wasting disease throughout the eastern Pacific, presumably triggered by unusually warm waters in recent years, has caused an increased interest in spatial and temporal patterns of sea star assemblages and the environmental drivers that structure these assemblages. This study assessed the role of seven potential static environmental variables (distance to freshwater, tidewater glacial presence, wave exposure, fetch, beach slope, substrate composition, and tidal range) influencing northern Gulf of Alaska sea star assemblages before and after regional sea star declines. For this, intertidal surveys were conducted annually from 2005 to 2018 at five sites in each of four regions that were between 100 and 420 km apart. In the years leading up to the regional mortality events, assemblages were different among regions and were structured mainly by tidewater glacier presence, wave fetch, and tidal range. The assemblages after wasting disease were different from those before the event, and there was a partial change in the environmental variables that correlated with sea star structure. In these recent years, the environmental variables most highly correlated with sea star assemblages were slope, wave fetch, and tidal range, all of which relate to desiccation, attachment, and wave action. This indicates that the change in sea star density and structure by wasting disease left an assemblage that is responding to different environmental variables. Understanding the delicate interplay of some of the 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.