The star has a lot of symbolism this time of year. However, this unique shape is present year-round in our beautiful coastal waters in the form of starfish, or more correctly, sea stars; because they aren’t a fish. Sea stars are echinoderms, which means “spiny skin.” There are 512 species documented from the Gulf of Mexico. They are related to sea urchins and sand dollars.
Sea stars can live up to 35 years in the wild. One of their most fascinating attributes is that they can regenerate or regrow a limb if it loses one. They do not have a head, heart, brains or blood and they breathe by filtering the ocean water. It is impossible to tell males from females based solely on outward appearance. They move along the sea floor using suction-cup feet, which also help them capture and consume their prey.
Many unique species make their home in Florida, however they tend to be a rare sight on the Emerald Coast. The explanation that I have read for this is that there are a series of sandbars that extend into deep water all along the Emerald Coast, and the shells collect on the outermost sandbars and never make it to shore. However, we have seen mass strandings of these creatures. In 2014, west of Pensacola, and again in January 2016 at Port St. Joe, beach goers reported seeing thousands of stranded starfish over a period of several weeks. Wildlife officials said cold weather, storms and high tides led the starfish to wash up on the shore. They believe that the starfish congregate in mass during cold weather and the high tides or storms wash them ashore.
Beachcombing for shells and starfish is a popular hobby, especially during winter months when it’s too cold to swim. Early morning is generally a good time to look, before everyone else has walked the beach. However, it’s important to be aware of and follow appropriate harvesting regulations to stay legal and avoid potential fines. A Florida recreational saltwater fishing license is required in order to harvest a sea shell containing a living organism, even when harvesting from shore. So, look and touch, but toss that sea star back into the ocean to see another season.
By: Laura Tiu, Marine Science Extension Agent