Animal of the Month
February 2018

Name: Red Cushion Sea Star (AKA West Indian Sea Star)

Class: Asteroidea
Order: Valvatida
Family: Oreasteridae
Genus: Oreaster
Species: O. reticulatus

Number of Species: 1
Size: Can reach around 20 inches in diameter
Weight: N/A

Characteristics: Shaped like a pointed star, usually bearing five arms but sometimes will have four, six or seven. Firm body with bumpy texture.
Color(s): Ranges from scarlet red to dark red with traces of yellow.
Behavior: Migratory, often travels in clusters.
Preferred Habitat: Shallow sandy bottoms, mangrove forests and coral reefs. Juveniles frequent sea grass meadows.
Range: AAcross the West Central Atlantic including the Caribbean, Florida, the gulf of Mexico and the Yucatán.
Diet: Prefers certain sea sponges but also feeds on invertebrates, algae and sea sediment.
Lifespan: (Dependent on food supply)

Status: Not Evaluated

They're often called starfish, but this is a bit of a misnomer. "Starfish" are actually a group of invertebrates called echinoderms, which are an entire phylum that includes sea urchins, sea cucumbers and sea lilies. In recent years, scientists have begun to promote the name sea star for these creatures. One widespread species of sea star is the red cushion sea star, also known as the West Indian sea star. These sea-dwelling critters can be found on the southern end of the US East Coast as well as the waters of the Caribbean Sea, Mexico, South America and West Africa.

Red cushion sea stars tend to live in shallower waters, with a maximum depth of 121 feet. They especially like sandy or grassy waters among corals, near beaches and within mangrove forests. Juvenile sea stars especially like sea grass fields and mangrove forests as they make for good places to hide from predators. Their colors can vary wildly from scarlet red to a mix of red and tan; even among specific populations the individuals may not share the same colors. During the winter they will migrate farther from shore to calmer waters.

Red cushion sea stars are omnivorous and will feast on just about anything that is plentiful, including copepods, algae, juvenile sea cucumbers, microorgan-isms and sea urchins. Sea stars catch their food in a most unusual way. First they gather up their prey and sediments with their arms. Then they pop their stomachs out of their body and engulf their prey! Once the prey has softened with digestive juices a sea star will pull it into its mouth and swallow it into a second stomach. These sea stars grow as long as food is readily available. When food is scarce they will absorb part of their body for emergency nutrition and actually shrink!

Most species are able to reproduce when they reach a certain size and age. However, age isn't a factor for red cushion sea stars; they can reproduce whenever they reach a radius of 12 centimeters. They can grow as large as 50 centimeters (almost 20 inches), and will continuously grow as long as food is available. Red cushion sea stars usually breed in the summer, except in warm tropical waters where they breed all year. Baby sea stars are born as zooplankton and drift through ocean currents. Eventually they will find a grassy place to rest and undergo a metamorphosis into a sea star, similar to how a tadpole turns into a frog.

The status of red cushion sea stars is not currently evaluated, though they are a relatively plentiful species. However, in certain places they have been overharvested for the tourist trade. Sometimes sea stars are caught, dried out and sold as souvenirs. This is a cruel and destructive practice! In addition, red cushion sea stars face a myriad of threats on their habitat. Pollution, development, climate change, and irresponsible fishing all degrade the coral reefs and mangrove forests that these sea stars (and many other species) call home. This is a good example of how a species can be threatened without being directly targeted.

Fortunately action has been taken to protect this species. In Florida and many parts of the Caribbean it is now illegal to harvest red cushion sea stars. As they are a large species of sea star, they are popular for tourists to observe in their natural habitat. There are also many campaigns underway to protect coral reefs and mangrove forests. Conservation is about looking at the whole picture; to save a species, you have to save its habitat too! Responsible habitat management saves countless species, and in turn benefits human health and our environmental resources.

To learn more about red cushion sea stars and how you can help preserve their habitat, look up these fantastic websites:

Encyclopedia of Life, "Oreaster reticulatus"-The Encyclopedia of Life is a database supported by multiple reputable organizations, dedicated to compiling academic information of life on Earth. Here they have a page on the red cushion sea star.

Coral Reef Alliance-An organization dedicated to keeping coral reefs intact through research and collaboration with local and national governments.

Mangrove Action Project-A worldwide network of non-government organiza-tions and scientists, the Mangrove Action Project works with communities and organizations to advocate for and restore mangrove forests.


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