Totems: STARFISH, Part 1 of 2
Can you see me? Can you feel me? Would you touch me? I am STARFISH, star of the sea. I use all my sensory awareness to perceive the world around me. How do you sense your world – with your intellect, your heartfelt emotions, or perhaps with your body? I stretch my arms, each of which includes the essence of me, opening wide to embrace my surroundings. From the realm of the ocean, the womb from which I sprang, I live and move in my undersea world. Not too far from the shore – the earth element; not so deep that I would not feel the warmth of the sun on the water; not always immersed in water, but sometimes in airy wetness. In this way, I am one with the elements.
Within my world, there is safety and there is danger, and when I lose part of myself, I move into a state of regeneration, so that I may rebirth myself stronger than ever, new with sparkling life. You may not yet regenerate your limbs, but you may be reborn to new life and vitality through the power of your spirit, subsumed in the divinity that created you. Though we are diverse creations, we are related, you and I. We are both part of The One.
Starfish a.k.a. Sea Stars (I will use both names interchangeably) are echinoderms like sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers. About 2,000 kinds of starfish are currently catalogued. Even though they have become known as starfish, and they live in seawater, they are not fish; they are animals. In Greek, echinoderm means spiny skin. The spines are used for protection. Starfish are some of the spiniest sea animals. They have a true skeleton made up of bony calcareous plates. It’s just on the outside of their bodies, instead of the inside. Composed of calcium carbonate, like chalk and limestone, it is quite strong. Some sea stars have pinchers in between the spines on top of their bodies. They use these pinchers to snap at intruders and to clean sand off their bodies.
The arms on all starfish radiate out from a central point or disc, with eyespots at the tip of each arm or ray that can detect light. Each arm has organs identical with the others. Imagine having five intestines, five eyes, and five sets of sexual organs (gonads). Well, that last one would be interesting – Lol. A distinctive water vascular system of fluid-filled canals provides an internal network by which they move, feed, and exchange gases. Starfish have tiny tubes on the underside of each arm, which lift up their bodies and move them forward. Some have suction cups at the end of each tube.
On the underside, a deep groove extends down each arm, from the eye at the tip to the center where the mouth is located. Now this is where digestion gets interesting: the suction disks on the rows of tube feet help this animal move along, stick to rocky surfaces, and also to pry open the shells of the bi-valves they prey on. On both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, starfish like to feast on mussels, clams and oysters. Some eat sea urchins, barnacles, snails, and even other starfish. Mmmn. Anyway, the starfish crawls on the shellfish, straps its arms around it, and pulls. Eventually, the prey tires, its two valves open, and the starfish turns its stomach from the inside out through its mouth. The stomach then secretes enzymes that slowly digest and absorb the prey. When it has finished eating, the starfish draws back the stomach and its contents. Though starfish do have an anus, indigestible fragments are usually ejected via the mouth. This (cough, cough) rather unique way starfish eats, demonstrates to us that we have the opportunity and challenge of doing things according to our own guidance and sense of what is right, even if others are doing things in a completely different way. It’s about being true to ourselves.
The Northwest Coast Haida Nation of Native Americans has a starfish sub-clan. Starfish are sometimes carved into Haida totem poles to mark the lineage of this branch. The Haida picked starfish as an emblem because its ability to crack into a mussel shell, as described above, proved great strength. The Haida also felt starfish medicine meant longevity. They observed the starfish’s ability to regenerate, and deemed the starfish to be immortal.
Although five is the usual number of arms arrayed in a star-like pattern, some have up to thirty arms. The Sunflower Sea Star continues to grow more arms as it gets older – up to 24 arms – and three feet in diameter. This starfish has an amazing capacity called autotomy, for voluntary arm loss, and subsequently, complete arm regeneration. This is usually in response to an attack by a predator, just as a lizard will autotomize its tail in response to an attack. When attacked by M. gelatinosus, whose common name is Large Spiny Star, the Sunflower Sea Star does not attempt to escape. It remains immobile and slowly autotomizes several arms that are in contact with the predator’s mouth. After autotomy is complete, the Sunflower Star moves away while the Large Spiny Star digests the arms. The ability to autotomize its arms is due to the presence of a remarkable form of collagen between the arms and at their base that dissociates in response to neural stimulation, apparently resulting from the attack. This breaks down the connections of the arm to the body. Because of this capacity to regenerate the arm, starfish are a perfect model for studying the regeneration of an organ.
A starfish has no head and no brain either. Starfish are one mass of feeling and sensory awareness. Special cells on the starfish’s skin gather information about its surroundings. These cells send signals that trigger the starfish to take some kind of action, like crawling or turning. The same cells can also detect food sources and nearby predators. You might think that because starfish don’t have brains, they don’t have intelligence. Not true. Their intelligence is condensed into all of its parts, instead of being centrally located in a brain. Actually, all creatures have intelligence and consciousness, true to their own species. We humans would do well to cease trying to measure other species according to standards of human intelligence, so we don’t end up proving the opposite about ourselves!
Meanwhile, back at the metaphorical ranch, females are releasing about a million eggs about the same time that males are sending clouds of sperm into the water to fertilize them. Mostly, the hatching larvae don’t grow up with mom and dad though. They get carried wherever the current takes them. And then as they grow, the larvae sink to the ocean floor where they eventually become adult starfish. There are just a few species where mothers guard the larvae until they are big enough to go off on their own. When the Six-Rayed Starfish is ready to reproduce, she searches for a safe location like the underside of a rock and then attaches to it with her tube feet. She then arches her body, standing on the tips of her arms to form a brood chamber. Releasing about 1500 eggs, which she catches and holds beneath her body for around 40 days, she incubates the embryos in this arched position cleaning and tending them with her tube feet. Now, remember – the embryos are beneath her mouth, so for the whole time, she can’t eat! I’d call that some pretty amazing maternal instinct. She stays with them for another month until they are able to feed themselves and are fully independent. Oh, and then there is another option entirely, for reproducing. Some sea stars reproduce simply by pulling themselves apart, each half growing into a new body. Ouch! What a way to reproduce!
Like most things in life, there are exceptions to just about every rule with starfish. The Leather Sea Star’s spines do not stick out from below its skin, so it therefore feels leathery and slippery to the touch. This is also because it releases mucus over much of its body. Stinky mucus that smells garlic-y! In some starfish species, a cut-off arm, or two – sometimes all of the arms – will regenerate. The starfish immediately commences rebuilding the lost portions, eventually duplicating them exactly, though it takes time – up to a year. Occasionally, a single arm can grow into a whole new starfish, although usually a part of the central disc is needed to do this. During the initial stage of this process, the starfish is called a “comet form.” We might think of regeneration as growing onto, or replacing that which is lost, but another way to look at regeneration may be letting go of something or someone that no longer serves our life, in order to allow something new to enter into our experience. So, if starfish shows up in your life, or in your dreams, healing and/or regeneration may be on the horizon. This is compounded by the water element, which always signifies cleansing and healing, and going with the flow of life force.
More about Starfish, regeneration and a lot more, in the next issue of Wisdom magazine.