Feathers on the Reef

I don’t normally support the capture and sale of creatures that don’t survive and thrive in captivity. That’s true of the reef, as well as everywhere else. Whenever possible, I purchase captive-bred specimens to minimize the impact on wild reefs, and I avoid bringing home any creature that won’t mix well with the existing ecosystem in my little reef.

For that reason, I’ve mostly avoided feather stars–a filter-feeding crinoid from the family that also includes sea lilies. Crinoids have extremely specific, limited diets and typically starve to death in captivity. They’re beautiful, but delicate and hard to keep alive.

15B03 Feather feeding

I first encountered feather stars when I set up my reef back in 2009. I didn’t know much about them, and I bought one (mostly from ignorance) as an early inhabitant of my tank. Ironically, the reef I built was the ideal setup for crinoids, and that first feather star survived for over a year (when most of them starve to death within weeks). It died when the tank had an unexpected “crash” and the water parameters hurt a number of specimens  —  a sad but common occurrence with people learning to maintain a reef environment.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered another healthy feather star at the reef store where I shop. I confess, I couldn’t help myself and decided to bring it home.

It spent the first 24 hours wandering around the reef, seeking a spot where the water flow and other parameters made it happy (yes, aquatic creatures can be “happy” – and an observant watcher can recognize it, too).

15B03 Feather climbing

Feather stars use their arms to move, and they look a lot like tarantulas in the process. My larger seahorse, Ghillie, ignored the new addition, but the smaller seahorses found the crinoid terrifying — most likely due to its size and the fact that it has no eyes to suggest which direction it’s “facing.” (Without that cue, the seahorses didn’t know if it was stalking them or not.) 

The feather star spent its first night in the tank perched on top of the powerhead at the back of the tank.

15B03 Feather walking

The following morning, it decided to look for a better spot. Two hours later, it had traversed the tank and attached itself to the intake of my secondary filter. After a couple of hours, it finished feeding and closed itself up to rest.

15B03 Feather Sleeping

Two weeks later, the feather star remains attached to the filter intake (they hold on with thin, rootlike structures at the base of the body, called ‘cirri.’). It spreads its arms to feed in the morning, and again in the evening when I add a soup of oyster eggs and plankton to the tank. When fed, it curls up, transforming itself from “hairy tarantula” to “lovely flower.”

15B03 Feather feeding

Many people never have the chance to see a feather star because they’re largely nocturnal in the wild, and don’t do well on captive reefs. So far, this one appears to be doing well in my seahorse tank, and I’m hopeful that it will do even better than the first one I had a few years ago. I’ll keep you posted!

Have you ever seen a feather star, in an aquarium or in the wild? Do you find them lovely (as I do) or creepy (which is my son’s opinion)?


2 thoughts on “Feathers on the Reef

  • February 3, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    I’ve never seen one in person. Your pictures are beautiful, though … in a creepy sort of way. 😉

  • February 4, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Wowzers, Susan.

    That is quite the pretty critter. Great info on the stars and your experiences with them. Thanks.

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