Basket Star

Story by Julie Howard

B y day, it can resemble a messy mass of elaborate earthworms, a new variety of spaghetti, or some type of overgrown tuberous vegetable, but it is by night that this reclusive marine animal earns its name—the basket star.

Found off the Oregon Coast, as
well as in most oceans at depths between 33 feet and 6600 feet, the basket star is related to the more familiar sea star and brittle star. Like most other stars, it has five main arms branching off a central disk. But the basket star’s arms can branch out into a multitude of smaller and smaller branches, giving it a different appearance and earning it the Latin name Gorgonocephalus or Gorgon’s Head, with a diameter of up to 18 inches.

Usually anchored to and hiding amidst the rocks, stones, and coral on the ocean floor, the basket star is rarely seen by anyone other than the occasional diver. But an example of this extraordinary invertebrate is currently featured in one of the many exhibits created by Oregon Sea Grant at the Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center in Newport, Oregon. Recently discovered in a fisherman’s net, the basket star was donated to the Oregon State University facility.
This rarely seen basket star, discovered in a fisherman’s net,
is on display at the Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center in Newport. In the ocean, the basket star positions itself in a strong current of water and plucks its meal from the water’s flow.
In its natural habitat, the basket star is a nocturnal filter-feeder, but because volunteers and aquarists feed the exhibit animal during the day, visitors can catch glimpses of its unique style of feeding known as suspension feeding. In the ocean, the basket star will position itself directly in a strong current of water and unfurl its branching arms and their spiral-tipped offshoot tendrils to filter, snag, and pluck its next meal from the water’s flow.

The animal captures its prey with a rapidly flexing movement of the arm, first encircling it and then securing it with the tiny sharp hooks that line each arm. From there, the meal is moved inward toward the basket star’s mouth, which is located on the lower surface of the central disk that is its main body.

While difficult to care for outside their natural habitat, the basket star can survive if certain requirements are met. It needs to be able to stretch out the full length of its arms, which can grow to more than two feet long. It needs to be able to anchor onto something. And it requires a strong volume of water flowing over it in order to feed. The aquarist and animal husbandry staff at the Visitor Center were able to re-create these habitat circumstances for the animal, providing the additional water flow through the use of an 1800-gallon-per-hour pump. Now what might have been a temporary exhibit is a more permanent “featured creature” that has proven to be one of the more popular exhibits at the facility, according to Visitor Center staff, who say most people have never seen nor even heard of this particular animal. In its mystery and uniqueness, the basket star is perhaps second only to Reuben, the Center’s resident octopus and mascot.

Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center (541-867-0100;
http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor).

 
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