American scientists have identified a mysterious seagoing virus which has caused millions of suffering starfish to "melt" into slime, strewing awful fluids all over the place.
Boffins were baffled when they first saw the effects of the gruesome underwater epidemic.
First an infected starfish's arms would fall off, before the poor creature's internal organs leaked out through its skin.
The infection was so lethal that in some populations, up to one in three starfish were dying.
The killer disease is known as the Sea Star Associated Densovirus, or SSaDV. It is the first starfish virus to be the subject of any serious study.
“It’s the largest mortality event for marine diseases we’ve seen,” Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University, told PBS. “It affects over 20 species on our coast and it’s been causing catastrophic mortality.”
“These kinds of events are sentinels of change,” he added. “When you get an event like this, I think everybody will say it’s an extreme event and it’s pretty important to figure out what’s going on.”
Finding the virus was no easy task, said microbiologist Ian Hewson of Cornell University.
"There are ten million viruses in a drop of sea water, so the discovery of a virus that is responsible for the illness of a sea creature was like searching for a needle in a haystack."
The full study on the disease has been published in the journal PNAS. ®