SEATTLE (CBS Seattle) — Marine biologists are desperately trying to figure out what is killing starfish up and down the West Coast.

The mysterious disease was first noticed last summer at Starfish Point on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, according to

Dubbed Starfish-Wasting Syndrome, the ailment literally rips the sea creature apart as its limbs crawl away from each other. First a starfish develops lesions on its skin, then its arms begin to contort until they break away from the body. Normally starfish can regenerate a lost limb, but not with this disease. The arms break off the body allowing the internal organs to spill out, killing the animal.

At first it appeared limited to one species, but the disease has now been documented across about a dozen species. And tens of thousands of starfish have died, threatening the delicate ecosystem of the ocean floor.

Diseased animals have been confirmed from Alaska to Southern California.

Scientists say they are baffled by the cause and are concerned about the environmental impact of such a large die-off.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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