Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides)

Sunflower Star

Looking down from our kayaks as we drift along in the shallows, we almost always see plenty of interesting sea life. Even the “common” critters can be pretty amazing – like the Sunflower Star, for instance.

These colourful animals are BIG, at least in starfish terms: in the nutrient-rich waters here in the Pacific Northwest, they can grow up to 40 inches in diameter.

For a starfish, they’re also fast, travelling along the sea floor at up to four feet a minute. Maybe this gives them a useful edge as a predator (they eat clams, crabs, sea cucumbers, sand dollars and other species, as well as dead fish). Or maybe they need the speed to escape from the King Crabs that prey on them!

When I was young I used to call them “19-legged starfish”, convinced that they always had that precise number of appendages. But in reality, Sunflower Stars begin with five or six arms, and grow anywhere from 15 to 24 arms as they mature. (The one in the photo above appears to have 17.)

Their scientific name is Pycnopodia helianthoides (“dense-footed sunflower”). The “feet”, located on their underside, are actually thousands of tubular suckers, and if you’ve ever pulled a Sunflower Star up with your crab trap, you’ll know how just effective those “feet” can be. It’s hard work hauling all that weight up to the surface, but it can be even more difficult to convince this critter to let go!

We’re off the grid for most of the summer, with only occasional access to the internet. I’ve scheduled some new posts to appear during that time and welcome, as always, your comments – but it might be awhile before I can reply.

About Laurie MacBride, Eye on Environment

Photographer and writer focusing on nature and the environment

2 responses »

  1. Sherry Galey says:

    Magnificent photo, Laurie, and so interesting to read about this critter. Love the colour and shape. Sounds like you’re having a wonderful time.

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