Posted on 2/1/2022

The Story Behind Your Beach Find: Sea Stars

Welcome to our new blog series: The Story Behind Your Beach Find.

In this series of blogs will be taking a closer look at some of the treasures you may find while beach combing on your Outer Banks vacation.

The North Carolina coast is a beach combers dream, as there are so many capes and inlets which are great for collecting shells and other marine debris.

In recent weeks, there have been a few bouts of intense surf and winter storms, which have deposited beach treasures en masse. There has been everything from driftwood to sunglasses, to whelk to starfish -- oh, the starfish. These not-so-common finds have been washing up in droves, which has folks asking, "Why so many starfish?"

We will answer that question a little later on. We want to start by formally introducing the *star* of this blog.

Starfish / Sea Star

Sea Stars or Starfish are the epitome of "beach vibes". They are found all throughout tropical designs, prints, interiors, and decorations. But did you know starfish aren't actually fish at all? While calling them starfish is totally acceptable, the biological term for these creatures is "sea star".

Sea stars are related to sand dollars, sea urchins, and all other fellow echinoderms. The term "echinoderm" is just a fancy way of classifying marine animals whose bodies have radial symmetry.

While there are a variety of different sea stars, if you find one in our area, it will most likely be one of the following:

  • Common Sea Star
  • Gray Sea Star
  • Beaded Sea Star

Each "point" of the star is an arm with an eye-spot on the very tip. Having their eye on the end of an arm is important for them to live, as these animals are bottom dwellers, meaning they live and feed on the sandy bottom of the ocean. They will bury themselves in the sand and stick their eyes out of the sand, watching for movement or changing in lightness/darkness. Their vision is very rudimentary, and not as detailed or complex as the human eye, but that's okay, because these organisms live in areas where visibility is low anyway. What they are equipped with is more than enough for them.

Walking along our beaches, you will encounter many opened shells. Some of these shells may be the result of a lost "wrestling match" with a sea star. These animals love to feast on mollusks and their bodies are made to be expert "shuckers". Sea stars are able to use their 5 arms to latch on to the shell and break it open, allowing them to reach the goods on the inside.

It's great that starfish prefer shelled critters, because honestly, they don't move very fast -- topping out at about 30 inches per minute. Their slow-poke status make them prone to predation, but fortunately, they have a great defense mechanism. When a predator grasps upon an arm, the sea star can just say "see ya later" to its arm, as they drop their arm and grow a new one. How cool is that?

When They Wash Ashore

Sea Stars will typically wash ashore after a storm. Since they are bottom-dwellers and our waters have sandy bottoms, intense weather can "churn" their world upside-down. When intense currents, waves, and tide changes are brought forth by pressure systems, sea stars (and other varieties of bottom-dwellers) have a hard time clinging to the surface and staying in place. The oceans wrath tosses them to shore, where they eventually wash up for us to discover.

If you find a sea star, congrats, that's a neat beach find, but just bear in mind that they may still be alive. It's best to place them back in the ocean for them to continue living. Fortunately, they are quite resilient creatures, as described earlier with the regeneration of entire limbs. Gently place the star back in the water, careful to not not grab by just one arm, by scooping up in your palms and releasing.

An indicator the animal is still alive, is by checking the little "feet" on the underside of its arms. If the little feet respond to touch or water, they're still living and can be returned to the water. Another way to tell if it's alive is by observing its color, as starfish have skin that comes in varying colors. The only star that's really a safe bet for keeping as a souvenir is one that is completely devoid of color, the chalky white, bleached is okay to keep.

If you'd like to get an opportunity to see starfish up close and personal, we recommend the "off-season" as that is usually when the storms churn up the ocean enough to wash them ashore. Southern Shores Realty has a great line-up of vacation rentals ready for your next off-season getaway.

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