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Bizarre Sea Star of Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Is Intense, Fragile - And You Won't See It

Published 07/19/21 at 8:47 PM PDT
By Andre' GW Hagestedt

One Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Sea Star Is Intense, Bizarre and Fragile

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(Oregon Coast) – There's nothing more surreal sometimes than those critters from the sea. And this one from the Oregon coast gets serious about that. Tidepools along the Oregon / Washington coast and their colorful, wildly divergent denizens can be mind-blowing when you look at them up close. These creatures are stunning and intricate, with the starfish (sea star) an ever-favorite. (Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

However, one kind of sea star you'll never get to see outside of an aquarium is in these waters - and it's a weird one, with scraggly, tree-like branches wandering off in a myriad of directions. There's a stark, alien beauty about this creature.

They're called basket stars (Gorgonocephalus eucnemis), and the Sci-Fi idea is not far off here. Those branches are much like the sea star's arms, and there's much about their physiology that's wildly different from most anything we know.

One extreme aspect comes into their care when they're at an aquarium. Seaside Aquarium deals with them often, and as they told Oregon Coast Beach Connection years ago, the basket star cannot even touch the air we breath. It must remain underwater: air is like Superman's cryptonite to them.

“They cannot be exposed to air,” said manager Keith Chandler. “They have to be transferred underwater. If they get pockets of air underneath one of their arms, the arms break off.”

In fact, the wild creatures don't last long – period. They usually just live for months, and places like Seaside Aquarium, Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Charleston Marine Life Center and the Hatfield Marine Science Center never have them for extended periods.

There's something almost fractal in their physical design, like a Mandelbrot set. The basket star's central body is maybe five inches of less, yet all those arms can stretch over two feet. Allowing for that is one of the many strict conditions needed for them to survive in captivity. (Photo courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

Each is a different color, but most are somewhat orange or red in some way, while some can be whitish.

In spite of that extremely complex look, they've actually only got five main arms on them. Each one branches out over and over, however. Tiffany Boothe with the aquarium said it's mesmerizing to watch them move, as that's part of how they feed on the tiny plankton that's their steady diet. There are small hooks on them that help them catch the grub.

“The small branches have microscopic hooks to help the basket star capture its small prey (usually copepods),” Boothe said. “When stressed, exposed to air, or entangled the basket star will begin to shed its ‘arms.' Luckily, they can grow them back.”

Boothe said this creature lives at least 50 feet below the surface, and as far down as 500. You'll only see them on the Oregon coast or Washington coast if you're diving. Some have been known to live as deep as 6000 feet. (Photo courtesy MacKenna Hainey, Charleston Marine Life Center)

Part of their care includes accurately simulating the conditions they live in, which is in the midst of rather strong currents. This is what enables them to feed, as water rushes over them and provides their food. So aquariums have to create this as well.

University of Oregon (UofO) recently made an interesting discovery regarding these creatures, as one scientist there captured something on camera no one ever had before. MacKenna Hainey graduated from there but returned as a researcher, and at the southern Oregon coast's Charleston Marine Life Center used time-lapse photography to catch them breathing last year – considered a remarkable find.

She discovered they had one inhale and exhale about every two minutes. This rate increased while feeding, or when exposed to low oxygen conditions.

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Photo courtesy MacKenna Hainey / Charleston Marine Life Center. Photos below: Seaside Aquarium



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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees nearly 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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