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Pycnopodia helianthoides - Sunflower star

Geographic range:
Unalaska (Aleutian Islands) Alaska to Baja California; uncommon south of Carmel Bay.

Key features:
Large body diameter (40-65 cm) soft flexible body, many arms/rays (up to 26), and a variety of aboral colors.

Similar species:
Solaster dawsoni -- Morning sun star sea star

continental slope, kelp forest
Pycnopodia helianthoides - Sunflower star image


Primary common name:
Sunflower Star
  ITIS code:
Synonymous name(s):
General grouping:
Sea stars, urchins, cucumbers, sand dollars, brittle stars

Geographic Range
Range description:
Northern range limit of the Sunflower star is Alaska, southern range limit is Baja California, but they are uncommon south of Carmel Bay. Unalaska (Aleutian Islands) Alaska to Baja California; uncommon south of Carmel Bay. Sunflower Stars are occasionally found in the San Diego/Baja California area, at their southern range limit. Since they prefer areas with dense seaweed vegetation, this is likely a limiting factor of their southern distribution, where seaweeds are less abundant due to warmer water temperatures. These warmer ocean temperatures to the south are also a major limiting factor of Sunflower Star distribution, as they prefer temperate waters. Sun Stars can be found as far north as Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands, where they are limited by colder waters, and a lack of seaweed habitat further north. Sun Stars can be found on sand, mud, and rocky substrates.
Northern latitude extent:
  Southern latitude extent:
East longitude extent:
  West longitude extent:

Intertidal Height
Lowest intertidal height:
0 meters OR 0 feet
  Highest intertidal height:
0 meters OR 0 feet
Intertidal height notes:
Within central California, Pycnopodia helianthoides is occasionally found in the low intertidal and in large, deep tidepools. In the northern part of the range, they are more common in the lower intertidal.

Subtidal Depth Range
Minimum depth:
0 meters OR 0 feet
  Maximum depth:
435 meters OR 1400 feet
Subtidal depth notes:

continental slope, kelp forest
Habitat notes:
Sunflower stars prefer relatively cold (temperate) waters, in areas with surrounding seaweeds. Within the MBNMS Sunflower stars can commonly be seen beneath the canopies of Giant Kelp Macrocystis pyrifera, on the sandy or rocky bottom. Pycnopodia helianthoides are abundant from the low intertidal zone, to the subtidal zone (435 m).

Relative abundance:
Frequent from the low intertidal zone, to the subtidal zone (435 m). They are found on sand, mud, and rock, especially in areas with an abundance of seaweeds. Due to their large geographic range, and their success in ecological competition for space and food, the relative abundance of Sunflower stars is high.

Species Description
General description:
The Sunflower star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, has from 15-24 rays (arms) in adults, while juveniles have as few as 5. Their Latin name (Pycnopodia), means "dense feet," and (helianthoides) means "sunflower." Pycnopodia has the largest body diameter of any starfish (40-65 cm). Its large number of arms gives it tremendous predatory advantages over other sea stars, in both dexterity and speed. When the Sunflower star becomes excited by food, it can move very rapidly and actively, at a rate of up to 1 meter per minute, greater than any other observed starfish. This species displays a variety of colors including; purple, pink, orange, brown, yellow, and red. Similarly to other sea stars, the Sunflower star has large numbers of tiny tube feet, as well as digestive glands and gonads on its underside, which is a lighter yellowish color. Sunflower stars have eyespots on some of their rays that help them respond to light, currents, and touch. They also have tiny spines, or pinchers along their dermal gills called Pedicellarias, that can be used to catch prey, ward off predators, and hold onto things such as seaweed, which can be used as a form of camouflage.
Distinctive features:
The Sunflower Star has many rays (up to 26 or as few as 15 in adults, and usually 5 in smaller juveniles). They have a broad disk size, flexible and soft, various aboral coloring (purple, pink, red, brown, yellow, and orange). They are the largest and heaviest of all starfish, with a maximum recorded diameter of 90cm (35.4 in.). They are also the most active of all Pacific coast sea stars.
Diameter: 40 to 65 cm (15.7 to 25.6 in.) With record lengths >90cm (35.4 in.) Weight: Average adult ~ (5-11 lbs)

Natural History
General natural history:
Pycnopodia helianthoides have Tube feet that use a hydraulic vascular mechanism that draws in water through the madreporite, enabling grip and locomotion. They also have tiny soft tissue patches of dermal gills that contract when touched. The coloration of Sunflower stars is dependent on the proportion of its skin that is exposed, when its gills extend beyond its outer calcareous plate. The sunflower stars skeleton has pieces that are disconnected, unlike most sea stars, which have a semi-rigid one piece skeleton. This allows its mouth to open very wide, and its body to expand to consume its prey. When under attack, Pycnopodia helianthoides can detach their arms (autotomy), and later regenerate them. An entirely new sea star can form from this detached arm, if a piece of its central disk is still attached. Pycnopodia helianthoides has an average life span of 3 to 5 years, and their mating season is typically from March through July. Their main limiting factor is the availability of food, not predation or competition for space. Sunflower stars can react from chemical cues given off by damaged prey. In turn, many invertebrates can sense the approach of predatory sea stars, and have developed an escape response mechanism. The prey of Sunflower stars, use a variety of escape techniques to avoid entrapment and predation. Shelled prey will twist their shells violently, to try and break free from Pycnopodia's powerful tube feet. Others use a pole vaulting technique, or thrashing that allows the prey to swim out of reach. Sea urchins use tiny pinchers, to nibble at the Sunflower stars tube feet, causing them to retract until it eventually retreats.
The King Crab paralithodes camtschatica captures and feeds upon Sunflower stars and is its main predator, found primarily in Alaska. Other Sea stars (Solaster dawsoni), and rarely sea otters and seagulls will also attack Sunflower stars.
The preferred diet of the Sunflower star consists mainly of sea urchins and bivalves. In the MBNMS Sunflower stars feed on dead or dying squid, when they are available seasonally. They also feed on a variety of chitons and snails, polychetes, small fish, sea cucumbers, hermit and grapsoid crabs, and a variety of other sea stars. The juvenile forms are usually the only target for predators.

Feeding behavior
Feeding behavior(s):
Feeding behavior notes:
Sunflower stars are a voracious predator, that will attempt to eat almost anything that they encounter, including their own kind. For this reason they have acquired the nickname the "Hyena of the sea." They feed seasonally on squid that die and sink to the bottom shortly after the squid's reproduce. The squid's pen is indigestible, and the Sunflower star is unable to excrete it, so the pens can sometimes be seen extruding through their soft upper body. Sunflower stars may sometimes partially evert their stomachs, in order to gain access its prey. A hunting strategy that is commonly employed by Sunflower stars is to locate clams under the sand, and then dig around the clams, quicker than the clams can escape. This practice leaves large pits in the sand that are a common site for divers. Proximity or contact with Sunflower stars has been found to initiate an escape response in many invertebrate species. The main factors for the Sunflower stars success in competition for space and food are its large size, combined with its ability to use over 15,000 suction tube feet against its competitors and prey.
Pycnopodia helianthoides do not exhibit sexual dimorphism. It uses external broadcast fertilization, and is polygynandrous. Sunflower stars typically breed from March through July, and the peak of their breeding season is in May and June, although fertilizable eggs have been obtained from Sunflower stars from December to June. The separate sexes shed their respective sperm or eggs, where fertilization takes place by ran-dom occurrence. Sunflower stars do not provide parental care; instead their eggs develop into swimming, pelagic, plankton feeding larvae. After no more than 10 weeks, the plankton settles on the sea floor, where it metamorphoses into its juvenile (5 armed) form.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary:
Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary:
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary:
Sewage spills, and urban runoff are harmful to sunflower stars, and the entire marine eco-system. Collection by humans and other anthropogenic disturbances from visitors, pose another threat to the general wellbeing of Sunflower stars. They play a role of secondary importance to the sea otter, in keeping sea urchin populations in check, allowing for higher levels of plant diversity and primary productivity, in turn helping their own larvae gain greater access to food. The population of Sunflower stars as a whole is generally considered healthy and occurs over a fairly broad range. When handled roughly, adult Sunflower stars have been known to shed their arms, and it is common to see them in the field with arms that are being regenerated. It is currently not listed by the IUCN.
Listing Status:
Monitoring Trends:
Brewer Reid, Konar Brenda, 2005 Chemosensory Responses and Foraging Behavior of the Seastar Pycnopodia helianthoides Marine Biology (2005) 147: 789-795

Duggins David, 1983 Starfish Predation and the Creation of Mosaic Patterns in a Kelp-Dominated Community Friday Harbor Laboratories, Friday Harbor Washington Ecology, 64(6), 1983, pp. 1610-1619. The Ecological Society of America

Mladenov et al, 1989 Purification and Partial Characterization of an Autonomy-Promoting Factor from the Sea
Star Pycnopodia helianthoides Department of Biology, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick Canada Biological Bulletin. 176-169-175. (April, 1989)

Morris, R.H., D.P Abbott, and E.C. Haderlie. 1980. Intertidal Invertebrates of California. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 690 p.

Animal Diversity Web
Accessed 8/19/09 for Giant green anemone
Accesed 3/31/09 for Pycnopodia helianthoides
Accessed 8/1/09 for purple sea urchin
Accessed 11/11/09 for American Avocet
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 07/07/2009 for Pied-billed Grebe

Crowles, Dave 2005. Walla Walla University
Accessed 3/31/09 for Pycnopodia helianthoides
Accessed 9/12/09 for Stalked tunicate
Accessed 8/29/09 for Blueband hermit crab

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Online Field Guide, 2008.
Accessed [04/27/06]
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 8/19/09 for Bryozoan
Accessed 7/31/09 for Spiny brittle star
Accessed 3/31/09 for Sunflower star
Accessed 8/9/09 for red octopus
Accessed 8/19/09 for Decorator crab
Accessed 7/31/09 for warty sea cucumber

Zipcodezoo. The Bay Science Foundation 2009
Accessed 03/31/2009 for Pycnopodia helianthoides
Accessed 08/19/2009 for Stalked tunicate
Accessed 08/19/2009 for Blueband hermit crab
Accessed 01/26/2010 for Pigeon Guillemot

Data supplied by SIMoN Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Anthopleura xanthogrammica - Giant green anemone

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