One of the things I always wanted to see as a kid combing the beach for seashells was a real live starfish, but I don’t remember ever seeing one during my forays. It turns out that they were there and I was just missing out on their secret – they come out at dawn.
I stumbled upon this behavior when my wife and I spent the night at Stilts. With camera in hand, I decided to comb the beach a little at a bit past dawn because I didn’t want to be under the burning sun.
[I know, I know, it’s a beach…]
It was this aversion to painful skin that had me gazing in surprise at the white sanded shoreline as it was teeming with Starfish and other forms of sea life. And the next hour or so was spent in heavenly bliss, snapping pictures of nearly everything that moves on the beach.
A Brief Background
Just as people know that a Catfish is not a cat and a Dogfish is not a dog, a starfish is not a fish at all.
[Aha! Got you! You thought…]
Scientifically speaking, a Starfish is an echinoderm or a type of sea creature that has spines on its skin. Also known as Sea Stars, Starfish are related to Sea Urchins, those spiny balls of the sea.
Starfish and Sea Urchins are typically composed of five sections. If you pick up a dead Sea Urchin, which is the skeleton ball without any spines attached to it, you can actually count the sections. And at the center of any Starfish or Sea Urchin will be a mouth.
In the case of Sea Stars, each section will have an arm attached to it. And while the five-armed Starfish may be a common sight on beaches, there are actually varieties with many more than this. Under these arms are tiny tube-like feet with suckers at the end. Moving kind of like caterpillar legs, they are able to slowly propel Sea Stars sideways or bury them underneath sand.
In addition to this interesting way of locomotion, it might surprise some people to learn that Starfish do not have any blood. It pumps sea water throughout its body to get nutrients and oxygen to its internal organs.
The diet of Starfish typically consist of coral or shellfish like clams, mussels, and oysters. Using the suckers at the end of each tiny foot, they grip the hard shells and pull outward with their muscular arms. And if anyone has tried prying apart a shellfish, the strength needed to do so is nothing short of phenomenal. Once a shell has been pried slightly open, it inserts its stomach in the shell and digests the mollusk from the inside.
While many Sea Stars aren’t harmful to humans, one type is dangerous to man and coral reefs all over the world. The Crown-of-Thorns Starfish has toxins in its spine that humans can experience swelling when they are scratched of punctured by them. It is also one of the biggest threats to coral reefs because a single one can wipe out wide areas.
And one of the reasons why it has spread to far is because humans have been overfishing and killing its natural enemies. Some types of Pufferfish, Triggerfish, and Painted Shrimp are captured for aquariums. While the Triton's trumpet is taken for its colorful shells. While certain types of worms may be affected by pollution or climate change.
Another reason is that some people may cut the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish in to pieces then throw them back into the sea, thinking they have killed it. The problem is that Sea Stars can regenerate a missing arm. They can even grow a whole new body from a severed arm. So nothing short of drying them, or maybe burning them, can prevent them from coming back.
[Better yet, stop collecting and killing their natural enemies.]
While Sea Urchins are considered a delicacy with their meaty center in places, like the Philippines, Starfish are not as popular. Some of the reasons for this may be because their skin is so leathery and that there may be too little meat to get after they are harvested.
Finally, Sea Stars have a tiny, simple eye at the end of each arm. Viewed closely, it may resemble a tiny red or black dot. This is probably what it uses when it tries to bury itself in the sand once the sun begins to rise.
Where to Find Them
Unlike the Hermit Crab, Starfish can only be found in sea water. They have been found on shallow tropical beaches all the way to down to as much as 20,000 feet of water. They live in tropical climates, like that of the Philippine Sea, and have been found surviving in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. So when it comes to habitats, the Sea Star can be considered to be one of the most widespread.
In the case of beaches, they are usually found slowly crawling alongside the shore at about dawn. Perhaps it is because the simple eye on each arm is able to detect the light and realizes that it needs to bury itself under the sand after a night of foraying for food.
Or maybe it is because some dawn are accompanied by the low tide, which ends up exposing them. And in an attempt to return to the water, they can be seen slowly sliding on the surface of beaches.
While most Starfish I have encountered on the beach and in shallow water have been harmless, I try to avoid touching them until you are able to ask the locals about their safety. Some of the more elaborate and spiny ones may have toxins and can spoil a perfectly good holiday. And since curious children may be tempted to touch about anything, it might be good to warn them about the dangers beforehand.
[It’s better to be safe than sorry.]
There you have it, another fascinating creature to view when you hit the beach. What makes them so interesting is that they have five or more arms, with an eye in each arm. They have tiny feet with suction discs that are used to move and pry open the shells of their prey. And they can regenerate arms and even whole bodies when cut. Most of all, they come in quite a lot of shapes and sizes.
So the next time you happen to be on a beach while visiting any of the 1,707 islands in the Philippines, try waking up at the crack of dawn and be ready with your camera. You won’t be disappointed in what marine life you will find crawling on the beach.