Under the Sea — March 6, 2015 at 5:00 am

An Icon of the Sea: The Starfish

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©istockphoto/wierdeau

©istockphoto/wierdeau

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” Stephen Hawking famously said these motivational words during his commencement speech at Cambridge in 2012. And, yes, we should always look up at our lives from a place of potential—not stagnation. But, if starts are the birthplace of that epiphany, we don’t have to strain our necks by looking into the heavens—we can just as easily look in a tidal pool.

A Sea of Celestial Bodies
Starfish, sea stars, whichever common name floats your boat, conjure up thoughts of paradise and tropical tranquility. But they can just as easily amass images of an Alaskan cruse getaway. After all, starfish are found in all the world’s oceans. And, to be clear, “starfish” aren’t fish—they’re echinoderms. Relatives of the sea urchins, starfish occupy much of the same ecological niches of their spiked-ilk, feasting on the edible biomass on the ocean floor.

Attaining sizes equivalent to that of a common man’s coffee mug, starfish are among the more modest sized marine animals. But, as you may know, our solar system’s sun is a star—and it’s far from diminutive. Likewise, there’s an equally gargantuan starfish amongst the other saline celestials. The sunflower star fish (Pycnopodia helianthoides) can attain lengths of forty-inches and tip the standard scales at eleven-pounds; they’re often also given the moniker “trash can lid” starfish because of their size.

Sensitive Surroundings
While starfish have little in the way of well-developed neurological network, they are acutely aware of the space they occupy. The echinoderm’s tubed arms are riddles with podia (the small feet-like extensions that line the animal’s arm) that are acutely sensitive to chemical cues, temperature, and other external stimuli; starfish also possess primitive eye spots on the end of each arm capable of interpreting levels of illumination.

A Constantly Burning Light
A well-known anatomical quirk that starfish exhibit is the ability to regenerate lost or severely mutilated appendages. In most instances, the animal can completely regrow a severed limb in a matter of months…as long as there’s still reminisce of the central disc, home to the animal’s digestive track and nerve ring. However, some have been known to asexually reproduce genetically identical kin from the remnants of a single arm; starfish are also capable of sexual reproduction as well.

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