Several years ago, while walking on a Goa beach at dawn (the only civilised time you can do this), my eyes scanning the tide-line, I was brought up short by a cluster of three or four cream-coloured stars lying on the sand. Well, starfish really, now more correctly known as sea stars, because they may be stars but they are not fish. They’d been washed ashore and were waving their arms around gently. A couple of them were very still — sadly, they’d died. They posed very cooperatively for photographs and I hoped the incoming tide would take them back home to the ocean’s depths.
I put them away in the “pending investigation” folder of my mind and mostly forgot about them until I read about this notorious species of starfish, imaginatively called the ‘Crown of Thorns Starfish’, which was apparently creating havoc with the corals in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and similar reefs in Polynesia. These guys — and the rest of the clan needed checking out — right now. What I found turned out to be headline stuff: the kind of material a tabloid journalist would readily sell his mother and little daughters for!
There are apparently as many as 2,000 species of starfish (we’ll use their traditional name because everyone these days hates changing sacred traditions) in the world and they live in the oceans — from frigid arctic waters to warm tropical seas. They inhabit coastal areas — inter-tidal zones — down to the dark depths of 20,000 feet below (imagine the crushing pressure they encounter at this depth!). Most have five arms, radiating from a central disc (which contains the mouth), some have many more and one species, at least, has as many as 40 arms. (Think of all the phubbing you could do with 40 arms!) They may be vividly coloured: orange, yellow, cream, red, blue, green and brown; and, beautifully patterned — either to camouflage themselves or to ward off predators, but they cannot live in freshwater.
Get this: they have no brains, but each of their arms usually contains all their vital organs, making it a sort of independent entity. If an arm is cut off, it may grow back, and the cut-off arm may in turn grow into another starfish. They have eyespots at the tips of their arms and, though they may not boast 20/20 vision, see well enough for their needs. These guys are engineering marvels, using hydraulics and valves to move around with the help of tubular feet which also act as accessory gills.
The table manners of some would delight any six-year old. Starfish are mainly carnivorous, feeding off small fish, bivalves, oysters and suchlike. If they come across a prospective meal — which is too large to fit in their mouths (like an extra-XXX sized burger), and which is tightly shut, they insert two of their arms into the crack between the valves, prising it apart a little. And now, the juicy part: they may extrude a part of their stomach into the crack, which envelopes the bivalve and begins to digest it with the help of enzymes and then draws this back into the rest of the stomach in the starfish’s disc to complete the process. It’s called eversion. To give scatological analogy (which again, six-year olds would love) it’s rather like the way you would scoop up dog poop with a plastic bag: cover your wrist and hand with the bag, scoop the stuff up and do the outside-in maneuver! Most force-fed kids would give their ears to be able to pull a stunt like this! (“Baby, how many times have I told you not to put your stomach over the food on your plate! It’s disgusting!”)
As for their love-life and gender issues, it’s the kind of stuff which would reduce the gutter press to a panting, salivating mob! Starfish can have babies sexually or asexually. They are broadminded to the extent that most can be dudes and dudettes in tandem (“sequential hermaphrodites”) — and some are both ladies and gentlemen simultaneously, producing sperm and eggs at the same time (“simultaneous hermaphrodites”). Some begin life as guys and transform into girls. Some big girls split in half and the resulting offspring are guys, which again turn into girls when they get big enough! (Can you imagine the kind of pulp fiction that could be written around this and what this could do with government policy regarding the sexes?) Fertilisation usually takes place outside — in the water, where sperm and egg happily meet each other. In more romantic species, the gentleman crouches over the lady, placing his arms between hers, whispering sweet nothings no doubt (“let me take you in my arms again!”) and inducing her to release her eggs — as he releases his sperm.
Some moms-to- be brood their eggs inside specialised structures, some brood only a few, letting the others go. Some babies may eat eggs and embryos in the brood pouch — the sort of sibling rivalry one usually associates with so many big business houses and bygone royalty. Starfish are regarded as a “keystone species” — which means they are vital to the health and well being of their underwater ecosystems — just as the tiger is to the well-being of the forests. But in the wrong place, as an invasive species, they can play havoc, as both the notorious ‘Crown of Thorns’ and the ‘northern Pacific star’ are doing. The latter is considered to be one of the 100 most invasive species in the world.
By and large, starfish do not appear to provide a gourmet dining experience — they can be toxic (the Chinese of course, still fry them and eat them) — though they are picked up by gulls, others of their kind, fish, crabs and sea-otters.
If there’s one thing we must learn from these stars of the seas, it’s the need to be broadminded — to tolerate the apparently weird ways of others — even if it is turning one’s stomach inside out and consuming one’s dinner that way!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.