Starfish Wonders in Alaska

image od two orange starfish in clear waterStarfish are mysterious creatures. Some people and articles I have read say they should be called sea stars because of their shape and their lack of relationship to fish. I had never taken an interest in them until recently when I visited Alaska and kayaked on the Tatoosh Islands. The Tatoosh are located north of Ketchikan and are part of the Tongass National Forest,  U.S largest national forest.  While kayaking along the coast, I spotted an incredible array of these colorful creatures. Bright orange and pale lavender, spiny and fat, each one more different than the other, they nestled into the dark rocks along the shore.

The starfish on Alaska are extremely different from the giant ones I have seen before on Vieques, Puerto Rico. While their Caribbean relatives are larger and rounder, the ones in the north Pacific cold waters are smaller in size. After kayaking around the Tatoosh, I began my research on these particular sea habitants. Starfish are echinoderms or marine invertebrates with a five-radial symmetry that radiates from a central disc, hence their resemblance to a star. They move by using small water-filled sacs that protrude from their body. This hydraulic vascular system, aside from helping them move, aids them with feeding. Speaking of which, they have two stomachs: one for engulfing their prey and the other one for digestion!  They have a microscopic eye at the end of each arm which helps them move and distinguish between light and dark. While they have a complex nervous system, they lack a centralized brain. I was also very surprised to learn that they are able to regenerate lost arms and that they can travel considerable distances and migrate to breed and search for food.

Starfish have been around five hundred million years and there are around 1,800 species. This region of the North Pacific is among three areas of the world that yields the greatest variety of these echinoderms. Starfish are vital to marine ecosystems because they are calcifiers. Marine calcifiers play important roles in the food chains of nearly all oceanic ecosystems, help regulate ocean chemistry, and are an important source of biodiversity and productivity.

In order to celebrate my new found love for these unique and mysterious creatures, I acquired during my trip a beautiful ring with a silver starfish adhered to a blue stone resembling the ocean.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

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