Tuesday January 9, 2024

Monterey Herald

The sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides – a stunning behemoth in the invertebrate community with 24 arms measuring up to one meter from tip to tip, one of the largest and heaviest sea stars in the world – was once common in Monterey Bay and the entirety of the west coast from Alaska to San Diego. The Sunflower Star Laboratory, a nonprofit based in Monterey, seeks to rear sunflower stars in captivity and reintroduce them into marine environments where they have become locally extinct.

In magnificent purples, oranges, yellows and browns, this colossal star lived among kelp forests where it dined upon purple sea urchins, crabs, sea cucumbers, snails, chitons, dead squid, and even other sea stars. A voracious predator, Pycnopodia can maneuver along the substrate at speeds of over one meter per minute using its 15,000 suction-cupped tube feet to overcome benthic prey.

Sunflower stars are considered keystone species, organisms that hold together an ecosystem, in part due to their role controlling urchin populations that feed on kelp. Able to swallow entire sea urchin whole, sunflower stars help prevent urchin populations from overgrazing kelp forests.

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