Starfish, Simple, Slow, but Significant Marine Creatures

As you might be aware, the 4th Annual Reef Festival is quickly approaching and will be held on Sunday, May 28th at Mar de Tumbo Beach. In addition to boat trips to the reef, educational displays and sporting events, the festival will feature the always popular marine life touch tank. The touch tank gives children and adults alike the opportunity to come into close contact with and learn more about common marine species found in and around the coral reef environment. Each year, employees of Amigos del Mar Dive Shop collect marine creatures from the reef, such as sea cucumbers, anemones, sea hares, urchins and conch. They place them in a water-filled tank for the afternoon, after which they are returned to their natural habitat. All of these animals are interesting, but there is little doubt that one of the most popular and easily recognizable creatures found in the touch tank is the starfish (or sea star).

    It could be because they exist in a wide range of beautiful colors, from blue to red to yellow; or because they are docile and completely harmless to humans. Whatever the reason, the starfish is easily one of the most popular and distinguishable of all marine invertebrates (no backbone). There is no mistaking the body of this slow moving creature, characterized with five to six arms that radially extend from the center of the body, forming the shape of a star. These arms are covered with tube feet and suckers, which assist the starfish in crawling, feeding and clinging to surfaces. The strength of these suckers is apparent if you have ever tried to pry a starfish from a rock. The rigid body of the starfish is rough to the touch, covered with spines and most species range in width from 0.4 inches to 26 inches.

    There are approximately 1,500 species of starfish found throughout the world, all of which are abundant at most ocean depths. All starfish species use a mouth located on the underside of their body to feed on ocean-bottom debris, as well as on mussels and clams. Occasionally, when the starfish encounters larger prey, it will force its stomach out through its mouth and digest the prey outside of its body. Because of the variety of food the starfish consumes, it plays a very important role in maintaining the diversity of the food chain.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
    Despite a slightly developed sense of touch, smell and taste, the starfish is a relatively simple creature with a nervous system that lacks a brain. To reproduce, most species release eggs and sperm into the surrounding water, where fertilization takes place.   Interestingly, these invertebrates are also capable of regenerating body parts from body fragments. For example, if a starfish were cut in half, two whole starfish would grow from both halves. Generally, these creatures avoid predation because they are known to be unappetizing and lack nutrients, thus their populations are able to thrive. Occasionally, in fact, starfish populations exceed normal levels, which can result in the degradation of reef environments when these creatures overfeed on coral.

    For the most part, however, starfish are amazing inhabitants of the sea and bring enjoyment to those who come into contact with them. Like all marine creatures, they play a role in the marine ecosystem that cannot be underestimated. Be sure to check out the starfish, as well as other fascinating marine animals at this year's Reef Festival!

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