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Zach at the Zoo: Meet the Sunflower Sea Star

Posted at 7:13 AM, Apr 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-04 08:13:46-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — 3 News Now Anchor Zach Williamson introduces us to the sunflower sea star and goes behind the scenes at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to see the zoo's conservation efforts to save the species.

  • The sunflower sea star can grow up to 24 limbs.
  • It is the fastest, and heaviest, sea star in the world.
  • Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is helping lead the charge in saving the endangered species.


“They have a lot more going on than your regular sea star.”

The sunflower sea star is truly one of one -- starting with its number of limbs.

“They can have up to 24, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to always have the same amount,” Senior Aquarist at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium Ben Morrow said.

They use their roughly 15,000 tube feet on those limbs to move around – with speeds near ten feet per minute

“Well, these guys in particular are the world’s fastest sea star, which is kind of cool, even if you’re slow like a sea star,” Morrow laughed. “Others stars just aren’t fast enough to catch even a snail.”

Snails are just a part of the diet.

“These guys are a generalist easter. So, anything they can find they will go for. That’s gonna include snail species, urchin species, and sometimes other stars.”

Barnacles, oysters, and mussels are included – but purple urchins are their favorite.

Morrow tells me these urchins are a problem.

“They’re forming what’s called urchin barrens, which is just thousands of urchins, and they mow through a kelp forest in a week's time and then move to the next one. So, if we can put these sunflower stars back, it could have a real difference on those urchin barrens and keep these kelp forests much healthier.”

Sunflower sea stars have become endangered due to a disease called sea star wasting syndrome.

Morrow is co-heading a national conservation project to help save the species. Part of that project has been breeding them here in Omaha

“All these little dots towards the bottom are actually freshly settled sea stars,” He explained.

“They go through a larvae phase first. So, they don’t look anything like a traditional sea star or something you would think about when you think of a baby sea star.”

A big part of reaching this point has been the involvement of the reproduction sciences department at the zoo. Leading the charge in something that had never been done for the species.

“Some of the larvae that you are seeing behind you is the result of frozen and thawed out sperm,” Dr. Jessye Wojtusik, the Lead Scientist in Reproduction Sciences Department at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, explained.

“We did fertilization trials to see if they could survive, not only the freezing process, but also could be used in the fertilization process. They are capable of that, and we’re excited to see them grow up.”

It's been a two-year process – but their collaboration to genetically bank the sunflower sea star, and create a healthy population with more resistance to disease, can help this species thrive again.

“We’re going to try and raise these stars in captivity with the chance to put them back in the wild and help them repopulate on their own after that,” Morrow said.

The little ones will eventually head back out west to the Pacific Ocean, but you can find the two adult sunflower sea stars on display inside the Scott Aquarium.