Starfish Dissection


Starfish Dissection


Echinoderms are radially symmetrical animals that are only found in the sea (there are none on land or in fresh water). Echinoderms mean “spiny skin” in Greek. Many, but not all, echinoderms have spiny skin. There are over 6,000 species. Echinoderms usually have five appendages (arms or rays), but there are some exceptions.

Radial symmetry means that the body is a hub, like a bicycle wheel, and tentacles are spokes coming out of it (think of a starfish). As larvae, echinoderms are bilaterally symmetrical. As they mature, they become radially symmetrical.

Most adult echinoderms live on the bottom of the ocean floor. Many echinoderms have suckers on the ends of their feet that are used to capture and hold prey, and to hold onto rocks in a swift current.

Sea Stars
Sea stars (group name Stelleroidea) are sometimes called starfish, though they are not real fish (they lack both vertebrae and fins). There are two sub-types of sea stars:

  • Asteroideas are the true sea stars and sun stars.
  • Ophiuroideas are brittle stars and basket stars.

The differences between the two sub-types lies in how the arms connect to the central disk. Ophiuroids have arms that do not connect with each other. There is a distinct boundary between arm and central disk. Asteroids have arms that are connected to each other. Also, it is harder to tell with asteroids where the central disk ends and the arms begin.

The sea star’s top surface (or skin) looks spiny if you examine it. If you look very closely you will notice that there are different types of growths on the surface. Some bumps are used to absorb oxygen, they are called dermal branchiae. Pedicellaria are pincher-like organs used to clean the surface of the skin. Barnacle larvae could land on a sea star and start growing if it were not for these organs.

How Do Sea Stars Move?
Each sea star had hundreds of tiny feet on the bottom of each ray. These are tube feet, or podia. These tiny feet can be filled with sea water. The vascular system of the sea star is also filled with sea water. By moving water from the vascular system into the tiny feet, the sea star can make a foot move by expanding it. This is how sea stars move around. Muscles within the feet are used to retract them.

Each ray of a sea star has a light sensitive organ called an eyespot. Though it can not see nearly as well as we do, sea stars can detect light and its general direction. They have some idea of where they are going.

Can Sea Stars Grow New Arms?
Given enough time, sea stars can grow back arms that have been damaged or removed. For a few species, the severed arm can grow back into a complete sea star! For most sea stars, however, a severed limb dies.

What Do Sea Stars Eat?
Sea stars eat many things. A sea star’s diet can include: barnacles, snails, sea urchins, clams, and mussels. A few species, such as the spiny star of the North Atlantic, eat other sea stars! Many sea stars eat mussels and clams in an interesting way. They surround the shell and use the suckers on their feet to pull the two shells (or valves) apart. The sea star has enough force in its arms to actually bend the shell! This creates an opening between the two shells that is only .01 inches wide. Using this tiny gap, the sea star puts its stomach into the clam’s shell and eats its insides. When it is done, nothing is left but an empty shell.


Preserved starfish, dissecting pan, scissors, scalpel, forceps, T-pins, pencil, lab apron, safety glasses




Dorsal view of starfish showing external anatomy

Ventral view of starfish showing external anatomy

Dorsal view of a dissected starfish showing rectal cecum, anus, madreporite, pyloric stomach, pyloric duct

Dorsal view of a dissected starfish showing madreporite, stone canal, cardiac stomach, and ampullae

Dissection showing where cardiac stomach opens into the mouth

Close up of madreporite and stone canal

Dorsal view of a dissected starfish showing pyloric caecum and pyloric ducts

Dorsal view of a dissected starfish showing gonads and ampullae

Ventral view of starfish showing external anatomy