Sunflower Star (Pycnopidia helianthoides)

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Due to wider spreading occurrences of Sea Star wasting disease from Alaska to Baja, Coldwater Marine Aquatics will be limiting our collection and import of several species known to be affected. We will still be offering species that we have observed and quarantined for a 2 week minimum. So if you are looking for a specific sea star species please contact us directly for availability.

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Pycnopodia helianthoides, commonly known as the sunflower seastar, is a large sea starfound in the northeast Pacific. It is the largest sea star in the world, with a maximum armspan of 1 m (3.3 ft). Sunflower seastars usually have 16 to 24 limbs, their color can vary widely. They are predatory, feeding mostly on sea urchinsclamssnails, and other small invertebrates.


Sunflower seastars can grow to have an arm span of 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter.[2] Their color ranges from bright orange, yellow and red to brown and sometimes to purple, with soft, velvet-textured bodies and 16 to 24 arms with powerful suckers.[2][3] Most sea star species have a mesh-like skeleton to protect their internal organs.[4]

Distribution and habitat

Sunflower seastars are common in the northeast Pacific from Alaska to Southern California,[2] and are largest in Puget Sound, British Columbia and Alaska.[4] They generally inhabit low subtidal and intertidal areas rich in seaweed[5] or kelp.[6] They do not venture into high- and mid-tide areas because their body structure is fleshy and requires water to support it.[7]


Sunflower seastars are quick, efficient hunters, moving at an astonishing speed of 1 m/min (3.3 ft/min) using 15,000 tube feet which lie on the undersides of their bodies.[2][3] They are commonly found around urchin barrens, as the sea urchin is a favorite food. They also eat clams, snails, abalone, sea cucumbers and other sea stars.[2] In Monterey Bay,California, they will feed on dead or dying squid.[8] Although the sunflower seastar can greatly extend its mouth, for larger prey, the stomach can extend outside the mouth to digest prey, such as gastropods like abalone.[9]

Easily stressed by predators such as large fish and other sea stars, they can shed arms to escape, which will grow back within a few weeks. They are preyed upon by the king crab.[4]


Sunflower seastars can reproduce either asexually through fissiparity or sexually through broadcast spawning.[10] They also have separate sexes.[9]Sunflower seastars breed from May through June. In preparing to spawn, they arch up using a dozen or so arms to hoist their fleshy central mass free of the seafloor and release gametes into the water for external fertilization.[9]The microscopic sea star larvae float and feed near the surface for two to 10 weeks. After the planktonic larval period, the larvae settle to the bottom and transform into juveniles.[4] Juvenile sunflower seastars begin life with five arms, and grow the rest as they mature.[8] The lifespans of most seastars is three to five years.

In popular culture

Their feeding behavior was filmed for the BBC in the 2006 nature documentary Planet Earth and again in 2009 for Life.


  1. ^ "Pycnopodia helianthoides"Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 9 April 2007.
  2. a b c d e Sunflower seastar - NOAA
  3. a b Telnack, Jennifer. Intertidal Marine Invertebrates of the South Puget Sound. NW Marine Life.[dead link]
  4. a b c d Sunflowerstar. Scott Boyd's Emerald Sea Photography.
  5. ^ North Coast Intertidal Guide: Seastars & Urchins. North Coast Intertidal Guide. Humboldt State University. Arcata, CA.[dead link]
  6. ^ Sunflower Star. Channel Islands National Park. National Park Service.
  7. ^ Sunflower Star. North Island Explorer.
  8. a b Monterey Bay Aquarium: Online Field Guide - Sunflower star. Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  9. a b c Sea stars and relatives Edmonds Discovery Programs, City of Edmonds, Washington.
  10. ^ Aaron Shepard. "Pycnopodia helianthoides, The Sunflower Star". Evergreen State College.. Retrieved February 28, 2012.
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