|Image: Moorea Biocode|
Brittle Star? Or a close-up of a star?
Brittle Stars are composed of a central disc from which 5 long arms sprawl out. These snaking limbs give them the name ophiuroid, which means Serpent Star.
There are going on 2,000 members of the class Ophiuroidea and they're found throughout the ocean, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from rock pools to the deepest ocean floors.
Starfish, sea urchin and lots of Brittle Stars
Their success in this grim environment is partly because a lot of Brittle Stars are detritivores, so they eat bits of food in the abyssal mud. The miles and miles of abyssal mud.
Others are predators of small creatures or suspension feeders, where they use mucus on their tube feet to capture plankton from the current. They might even mix it all up a bit for a healthy, balanced diet.
The tube feet in Brittle Stars are a little different from the ones that starfish have in that they don't end in little suckers. Brittle Stars don't use them for getting around at all, and many will only use them for respiration and sensing their surroundings. Some, especially the suspension feeders, will use them for passing food on toward the mouth...
|Image: Simon Coppard|
A Bristle Star's underside showing its 5 jaws.
Do you think he's smiling?
To make matters worse, there could be a little bit of stomach sticking out of it. Yeh, Brittle Stars can do that nasty thing of pushing their stomach out through their mouth if food is too big to go the other way. If Muhammed won't go to the mountain, the mountain must go to Muhammed.
This is all quite a lot like starfish, but one big difference is that Brittle Stars have no anus. It means that everything has to be ejected through their mouth, no doubt leading to a complex, psychological relationship with food. Or it would if they had a head and a brain.
|Image: Bill Bouton via Flickr|
And, like Crinoids, those arms are scarcely more than skin and bone. Echinoderms have a strange, internal skeleton made of calcium carbonate plates called ossicles. Brittle Stars have huge ossicles in their arms connected together with ball-and-socket joints for excellent flexibility. It's like they have 5 backbones. Quite a coup for an invertebrate!
As the arms squirm about, spines sticking out from the sides give them traction. Brittle Stars can get around with surprising speed by slithering or dragging themselves along in a rowing motion. I have this strange image of people rowing in rowing boats across the water's surface and Brittle Stars doing the exact same thing across the water's bottom. It's odd to think, but these must be some of the fastest moving of all echinoderms. Especially when they have all 5 of their limbs...
|Image: Moorea Biocode|
'Tis but a scratch!
Brittle Stars are rather quick to break off an arm, hence the name "Brittle". They soon regenerate, though. It's not so easy for us humans, so you shouldn't consider hacking bits of yourself off as a first port of call.
And so, by hiding among rocks, living in environments few others can and taking advantage of a casual "on again, off again" relationship with their limbs, the Brittle Star survives and thrives.
Most Brittle Stars have males and females, although a few are hermaphrodite. Some have a free-swimming larval stage but many brood their young within their body and give birth to miniature Brittle Stars.
There are some oddities that have 6 arms and can split in two. Each side regrows half the central disc and the remaining 3 arms. Again, try not to split people in half without asking your doctor first. Results may vary.