Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Sunflower Seastars

(Caution, grody parts ahead)

The tide snuck out in the murky dusk leaving behind a scent of…really bad farts. Eau de very low tide. Starfish live on the bottom of this little bay in the mucky substrate, sometimes in droves. We paddled the skiff quietly through the deepening gloom, toward the muddy shore, toward…

There’s one! It’s climbing that rock! Stay back, it looks scary!

Sea monster lurking at night...

Sea monster lurking at night...

a-a-a-agh! There’s more! They have SO MANY LEGS! And feet! Look at all of those thousands and thousands of feet, reaching, moving, e-ew-w!

Sunflower seastars  (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in eel grass (Zostera marina).

Sunflower seastars  (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in eel grass (Zostera marina).

Sunflower seastar leg with feet extended.

Sunflower seastar leg with feet extended.

These many-legged starfish are called sunflower seastars (Pycnopodia helianthoides), but I grew up around people who just call them sun stars. There’s bright orange ones and purplish ones and dull gray-brown ones and the big ones are really big – two to three feet across.

Sunflower seastar moving through eelgrass at night in about two feet of water. This starfish is about 30 inches (76 cm) across.

Sunflower seastar moving through eelgrass at night in about two feet of water. This starfish is about 30 inches (76 cm) across.

Seagulls eat these guys, but I have never seen them eat legs off of one this big. Seagulls are about the only land or air critter I know of that can stand to eat starfish. A seagull will work on a much smaller one for about half an hour, grabbing legs and shaking them, and eventually breaking all of the legs off and eating the middle first. Oh, yummy. Is that like eating the creamy middle out of an Oreo cookie first? 

The one over there is re-growing some of it’s legs. It might have had legs pulled off, or it might have let them go in response to a threat. Sunflower seastars are one of the few starfish that can deliberately cast off a leg.

Sunflower seastar regrowing three of it's legs.

Mwahahahaha! Didn’t I see this in a horror flick?

Starfish eat meat. If they get ahold of a clam then they use those sucker feet to slo-owly pull the shell open so that they can eat the clam. If the clam is too big to fit through the starfish's mouth then the sunflower seastar turns it’s stomach (cardiac stomach) inside out into the clam and digests it. You are not reading this right before dinner, are you? Starfish also eat sea urchins, mussels, barnacles and about any other critter it can get into its multitudinous clutches.

A beached sunflower seastar (Pycnopodia helianthoides). The tide will be back in in a few hours and this starfish will be hunting for clams and other starfish treats again.

Closeup of the skin of a sunflower seastar leg. Its feet are in the background.

Watching these large starfish move through the eelgrass in the shallows is impressive. I sometimes have trouble getting two legs and two feet moving gracefully, yet the sunflower seastars handle  twenty legs and thousands of feet smoothly. They hunt successfully without eyes. They even brighten their world with their brilliant colors. Huh, never thought that I would appreciate starfish like this.

With dark fully upon us, and the flashlights getting tired, we paddled the skiff back to the boat for the night.

The day before we naively set out a crab pot in a sunflower seastar bed. We hoped it would be a crab patch instead, but no such luck. The starfish mobbed the pot, got inside (do starfish walk, crawl, slither..?), and went to work on the bait. Nine trophy starfish in one pot made it very heavy. We tied it to the rail of the boat and went around in the skiff to pull the starfish out of the pot one by one, and let them drift back down to their muddy lair.

A crab pot full of starfish being pulled up to the surface. The sunflower seastars were sent back home, and we set the crab pot elsewhere.

A crab pot full of starfish being pulled up to the surface. The sunflower seastars were sent back home, and we set the crab pot elsewhere.

Well the starfish have been fun! To see more animals click here: Alaskan Critters