The stars of the show this week are Gorgonocephalus basket stars. Members of the Class Ophiurodea, these bizarre deep-sea echinoderms are members of the same evolutionary group that brought us all those brittle stars with the five long, slender arms that we know and love.
Ophiuroid evolution, however, took a turn when it came to the Gorgonocephalus group and produced an absolutely otherwordly morphology. Rather than bearing whip-like arms, Gorgonocephalus sport a set of five arms that progressively bifurcate; creating the appearance of a tangled mass of wriggling worms.
Given their appearance, these animals are aptly named. The term Gorgonocephalus derives from “gorgos” and “-cephalus“, Greek for “Gorgon’s head”. Not ringing any bells? The monster Medusa was a particularly infamous Gorgon that you may have heard of.
That tangled mass of arms provides a clue as to this animal groups’ preferred method of feeding. First, a hungry Gorgonocephalus will typically mount a nearby rocky outcrop or another suitable pedestal. It then extends its mass of arms into the current. Its net of bifurcating arms subsequently captures small crustaceans and other tiny prey in the water column through a form of filter-feeding.
Prey items that get too close are ensnared by layers of both macroscopic and microscopic hooks on the surface of the Gorgonocephalus arms. You can watch a video of that feeding process, complete with menacing mouthparts, courtesy of the Seattle Aquarium below.
In terms of habitat, a study conducted by Rosenbert et. al in 2005 demonstrated that the basket star Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae has specific habitat requirements. Utilizing a Phantom S4 ROV, the team observed that Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae is restricted to deep waters between 85 and 120 meters with “rather uniform annual temperatures (4–8 C) and salinities and probably rather constant bottom currents.“
Rosenberg and the research team also noted a strong association between Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae and various deepwater corals (Lophelia sp. and Paramuricea sp.)
The Rosenberg article is fantastic and I highly recommend it if you’re craving a solid introduction to the biology of G. caputmedusae.
- Gorgonocephalus photo essay – Echinoblog
- Are Basket Stars Sea Stars? – Seattle Aquarium
- Barboza, C. A., Mendes, F. M., Dalben, A., & Tommasi, L. R. (2010). Echinodermata, Ophiuroidea, Gorgonocephalus Leach, 1815: First report of the genus for the Brazilian continental margin. Check List, 6(2).
- Herrero-Pérezrul, M. A., Granja-Fernández, R., Hoyos-Padilla, M., & Reyes-Bonilla, H. (2014). New record of the basket star Gorgonocephalus eucnemis (Ophiuroidea: Gorgonocephalidae) at the Pacific coast of Mexico. Marine Biodiversity Records, 7, e33.
- Rosenberg, R., Dupont, S., Lundälv, T., Sköld, H. N., Norkko, A., Roth, J., … & Thorndyke, M. (2005). Biology of the basket star Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae (L.). Marine Biology, 148(1), 43-50.