Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SEA STAR DEFENSE! How do starfish protect themselves??

Today's topic: STARFISH Defense!!
Its curious how often this question comes up. People see starfish and other echinoderms that are just sitting there. Echinoderms don't work in our time scale-and to our perception, they just kind of sit there.

Even other echinoderms seem to have the defense thing worked out!

Sea urchins got spines. Like these.
Sea cucumbers got that evisceration/gut spewing thing (uh...I'll describe this later but its just gross!).

Crinoids can get all swimmy and do all sorts of things to escape. Click here to see some.

Ophiuroids got arms they can drop.

But starfish? How are these seemingly innocuous creatures able to protect themselves?
How do they get away? When things come after them? What comes after them?

Today...a survey of what sea stars use to defend themselves against their various predators and adversaries.

What are starfish usually worried about? Usually fish...but also crabs, and sometimes other echinoderms...

1. Chemical Defenses. So, this is the one most people seem to miss, but its probably one of the most important. Most starfish have specific type of organic chemical called SAPONINS in their body wall.
Among animals (saponins are also found in plants), saponins are only present in sea cucumbers and starfish. Saponins are very unpleasant tasting and based on studies, such as this one and this one, are found in the larvae as well as the adults.

So, fishes and other predators basically learn that starfish are just AWFUL. In vertebrates, such as cats and/or dogs eating starfish and being poisoned by sapoinins can cause vomiting, nausea, and other unpleasant effects. Humans should take this hint and go with it...

Some species, such as this Astropecten polyacanthus have kicked their defenses up a notch and instead of (or possibly in addition to?) saponins, their body walls contain the deadly TETRODOTOXIN.
(photograph by Cory Pittman)
Tetrodotoxins have this chemical structure and function as nerve-blockers that can result in a variety of unpleasant outocmes including death. Pure Tetrodotoxin is 100 times MORE poisonous then potassium cyanide.
Tetrodotoxin gets its name because it is naturally occuring in puffer fish (order Tetrodontiformes). Wikipedia has an interesting article on it here.

Chemical defense also include the production of SERIOUS amounts of toxic materials such as MUCUS (grammar factoid! Mucus=noun. Mucous=adjective!) in the "slime star" Pteraster tessellatus (and probably all of its relatives in the Pterasteridae.)
This picture is no exaggeration. I've seen these animals produce BUCKETS of mucus in response to being annoyed. Early studies of Pteraster in the lab showed that other animals clogged by the mucus eventually die, suggesting that its not a substance that likely predators are fond of....

2. Armor & Spines. One of the more obvious features one sees in starfish, especially in tropical species is the presence of heavily developed armor and armament, such as the spines in this Protoreaster nodosus.
To be honest, armor and spines as defensive are usually interpretations of how the body forms function in the wild. Tropical starfish in the family Oreasteridae, such as Pentaster and Pentaceraster (below) almost all have these heavily developed bodies.
One major group of starfishes, the Valvataceans, which includes the Oreasteridae and other starfish groups with heavily calcified bodies, are highly diverse and considered evolutionarily successful in tropical regions, especially in the tropical Indo-Pacific.

Its thought that these armored bodies are part of why these starfish are so successful.

For example, here's the underside of the starfish Tosia. The tube foot groove is flanked by thick blunt spines.
These spines close up over the tube foot groove and clasp together. This is thought to protect the animal's tube feet and soft tissue from small predators, such as little shrimps, worms and fish.

In the New Zealand Pentagonaster, there are big, thick armor plates that cover over the armtips.
These are thought to similarly protect the armtips from fish, crabs, and/or other predators that attack the armtips.

If predation pressure is that much higher in the tropics-that may drive the evolution and diversification of tropical starfish species..

The crown of thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci is a big ol' starfish bad-ass. Its got the morphological defenses...the sharp spines AND it has saponins in its body wall.
Even if you look at something familiar like the intertidal Pisaster live in harsh wave-swept regions and have heavily calcified armor that I would say protects them the elements and other predators.
(this pic from Wikipedia)

3. Regeneration. Finally...most people are pretty aware of how starfish regenerate...

There's a LOT more I can write about regeneration but the video covers the basics...

One interesting point, however, is also brought up by this paper by Marrs et al. 2000 on arm damage in the North Atlantic Asterias rubens.

They hypothesize that larger individuals have "increased mechancial toughness" and that this replaces the shedding of arms (i.e., autotomy) as an antipredator strategy. There may be a size-related decline in the efficiency of the autotomy mechanism through the relaxation of selection pressure (i.e., the influence of predators).
This was an idea applied to individuals within this species..but if true, then large size itself could be another defense!! One possible explanation for why oreasterids are so big?? Or possibly other species?


Anonymous said...

Enjoyable article; also, very RPG-worthy.

madliam said...

Hi Chris,

Another really interesting article. I don't know much about them, but wondered how important pedicellariae might be for protection too? Any thoughts?

Best wishes,

ChrisM said...

you are absolutely right. I think they probably are-but sometimes its hard to say when they are for defense and when they are actually used more aggressively (e.g., in Labidiaster for catching food).
One sees abundant pedicellariae on many goniasterids but not on others which implies variation maybe in response to predators? Tempting but hard to say given how little is known.
I will probably blog about pedicellariae before too long and discuss these issue...
There's always SOMETHING...:-)

Irradiatus said...

(oops - previously left this comment on the wrong post - sorry)

I'd also like to add that they have macrophage-like cells that can engulf foreign invaders inside their bodies in both embryos (blastocoelar mesenchymal cells) and adults (coelomocytes).

In fact, I recently sucked some fluid out of a starfish with a syringe (expecting mostly water with a few scattered immune cells). But when I stuck it undera microscope I saw millions upon millions of these cells, some of which are free-swimming flagellated, while others are more "crawly" like a typical macrophage cell.

There was a cool paper a while back that showed that these cells will phagocytose almost any foreign object, like polystyrene beads, bacteria, killed cells from the same species, and urchin sperm (but not live cells from the same species).

Anonymous said...

thanks for the info! lots of help on my homework.

Unknown said...

"Saponins are found only in sea cucumbers and starfish" is incorrect, saponins are found in almost all plants.

ChrisM said...

thanks heather! I have edited those sentences..

Anonymous said...

Hi! I have a question on why the echinoderms are very hard in terms of defense and survivability. could you please help me answer this? :) thanks a lot!

Josh Regalado said...

Dear Dr. Mah,

I work with Protoreaster nodosus that their spines are really sharp. though ive noticed some individuals in some sampling sites to have blunt spines. Do you have an idea if it is due to predation of some boxfishes or puffer fishes ?


Anonymous said...

this site really helped me a lot. thanks!

Anonymous said...

this was really helpful because I'm currently doing a school project on starfish. THANKS

Unknown said...

I thought that this article was really helpful. I'm doing a school project on the Ochre sea star and one of the questions on my homework was "how does the Ochre sea star defend itself". So I googled it and got this.

Anonymous said...

helps with the school project I'm doing <3

Rob Reid said...

Are starfish dangerous?

ChrisM said...


David said...

Can starfish actually harden their bodies against shark bites as a defense of is that a myth?

ChrisM said...

As a generality, sea stars have a special kind of connective tissue, called "catch connective tissue" which permits them to shift positions of spines, arms, etc. from flexible to immovable. Degree to which depends on species. So.. some species definitely could flex spines into a position that protects them against fish predators.

that said, I've never heard of sharks attacking sea stars.