Feather stars display a wide variety of colours; predominantly mottled patterns of reds, oranges, pink and whites, presenting a striking image when found in a large group. The feather stars get their unique look from a set of 5 pairs of highly dextrous arms that are long, spindly and exhibit the characteristic feathery look. Their distinctive arms allow them to filter the water for food – known as suspension feeding – and tiny tube feet located along the arms catch small particles in the water and pass them along to the mouth. Unlike other starfish, feather star mouths are located upon the top side of their body.
Due to their selective feeding method, feather stars are usually located in areas with a strong current in order to gain easy access to as many floating food particles as possible. To help them survive in these harsh conditions they have up to 25 claw-like appendages, called cirri, clustered under the middle of their arms which they use to cling on to the seafloor. Although feather stars look incredibly fragile, the cirri are remarkably strong, as many divers may have experienced when a rogue feather star happens to cling on to their equipment.
Feather stars also have a highly functional role to play within the marine ecosystem. Their unique shape and structure helps to enhance the structural complexity of the seafloor. Complex areas are extremely important as they can provide refuges from predation and from bad environmental conditions (strong currents and tides) for many species; even commercially important ones such as juvenile cod and juvenile scallops.
The Isle of Arran provides many of different complex habitats, and the new marine protected area that is being proposed by COAST would include several of these. By providing protection from the more damaging fishing methods, the sea floor is allowed to regenerate and maintain its complexity. The implementation of the marine protected area would not only allow feather stars to thrive and further enhance this structural complexity, but would also greatly benefit a multitude of other species residing in similar habitats.
Latin name:Antedon bifida
Habitat: Free-moving, but prefer areas with fast flowing currents. They also help to increase the structural complexity of many habitats.
Distribution: Common around most of the British coast (except the south east)
Size: up to 15cm across
Sources: Naylor, P., 2005. Great British Marine Animals. 2nd ed. Cornwall: Sound Diving Publications, pp. 192.
Photo: by Leigh Howarth