Thank My Lucky Stars!

Thank My Lucky Stars!

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.

An "Indian Sea Star" balances on the tips of a hard coral
An “Indian Sea Star” balances on the tips of a hard coral

Those stars weren’t so big.  They were really so small,

You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”  –Dr. Suess

Peppermint Sea Star
Peppermint Sea Star

I’ve been thinking a lot about stars lately, Sea stars that is. There are so many things we say about stars and almost none of them refer to the fabulous stars in the sea. We wish upon a star, we star gaze under the starry sky, we wish to become a rising star, movie star, rock star, all star, or super star. We might travel past the second star to the right and straight on till morning where we hope to stay in a 5 star hotel. We are entertained by movies called “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and “Stardust.” We reach for the stars, watch falling stars, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle little Star.” We may be star crossed lovers, or hope we have a guiding star. We even indulge our sweet tooth with Starbursts. But aside from Patrick Star, who could loosely be considered a television star, we rarely speak in terms of sea stars.

Blue Sea Star
Blue Sea Star
This Brittle Star was found "falling" through the water column
This Brittle Star was found “falling” through the water column

Amazingly enough, not all sea stars are have five legs or are even shaped like stars.  Take the Crinoid, or Feather Star, for example.  This echinoderm looks more like a plant than a sea star.  It’s foot looks like a shallow root system.

Bennett's Feather Star
Bennett’s Feather Star
This Feather Star shades the anemone fish's home from the sun.
This Feather Star shades the anemone fish’s home from the sun.
A crinoid or "feather star" curled up
A crinoid or “feather star” curled up

This interesting echinoderm is called a Basket Star.  During the day it’s limbs entangle themselves into a tight ball that resembles a birds nest.  It is found on sea fans and when darkness falls it crawls out to the end of the fan and opens up to sift the water for nutrients that are passing by.

The Basket Star opens up at night to feed, but in the daytime it stays curled up and looks something like a birds nest.
The Basket Star opens up at night to feed, but in the daytime it stays curled up and looks something like a birds nest.

Lately I have had California sea stars on my mind. Many of you probably don’t know that there is a devastating epidemic that is ravaging sea stars all along the western coast from Alaska to California. This disease has been termed “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome” and it causes the sea stars to appear to dissolve into a puddle of goo.  (Click Sea Star Wasting Syndrome to read more about it.)

20130824-star and fish
I have had several encounters with sea stars suffering from this disease and it is disturbing to imagine that the sea star population could be wiped out this year. There has been a major die-off before, caused by warmer water temperatures in 1983-84 and again in 1997-98. It is unclear what is causing Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and if it is related to warmer water temperatures.

A Healthy Sea Star
A Healthy Sea Star

The photograph below was taken on February 17, 2014 at Shaw’s Cove in Laguna Beach.  Although it doesn’t show in the photograph, this star shows signs of the disease and I observed several others on the same dive.  It is characterized by missing limbs with lesions around the site, and soft, dissolved or disintegrated star body.

This sea star is a victim of "Sea Star Wasting Syndrome." It has lost a leg, and two other legs dangle lifelessly. Although it isn't shown in this photograph, there are lesions around the right side of the star and the bottom right leg has begun to dissolve.
This sea star is a victim of “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome.” It has lost a leg, and two other legs dangle lifelessly. Although it isn’t shown in this photograph, there are lesions around the right side of the star and the bottom right leg has begun to dissolve.

Sadly, scientists don’t yet know what is causing this epidemic.  There may soon be far fewer sea stars to grace my dives in the future.  In any case, sea stars are a great subject to photograph, and of the two thousand species in the ocean, I have photographed only a few. But for those, I thank my lucky stars!

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My photographs are taken with a Nikon  D810 in Sea and Sea Housing using two YS-D1 or YS-D2 Strobes.
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© 2014- 2017 Brook Peterson
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