E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Pycnopodia helianthoides (Brandt, 1835)
Sunflower Star
Family: Asteriidae
Photo of species

© Neil McDaniel  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #15915)

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Distribution of Pycnopodia helianthoides in British Columbia
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}i}Family Description

Five or more arms. At least one adambulacral is fused into an adoral carina. The adambulacrals are wider than their length. Crossed and straight pedicellariae are present, the former usually in dense tufts around the spines. The aboral skeleton is meshlike. The tube feet are arranged in four rows.

Species Information

Pycnopodia helianthoides is the largest sea star. It has more arms (15 to 24) than any other species and is softer than most. It is also probably the heaviest known sea star, weighing in at about 5 kg. The colour varies from reddish-orange to yellow, violet brown, purplish or slatey purple - the colour can depend on how much of the underlying skin is exposed when the papulae or pedicellariae expand. The oral surface is usually lighter, with yellow to orange tube feet. The arms are up to 40 cm long and the arm-to-disc ratio is 2.5 to 3.5. The aboral surface is soft and flexible, because the calcareous plates are not connected to one another. The plates near the centre of the disc and the base of arms sometimes bear stubby spines surrounded by a wreath of crossed pedicellariae and occasionallanceolate pedicellariae. The number of spines on the arms decline distally and the clumps of pedicellariae are closer together, with up to 75 papulae scattered among them. A slight furrow devoid of papulae occurs from where the arms join to the aboral surface. The superomarginals make up the first row of prominent spines on the side of each arm. Below these are the inferomarginal plates, bearing two rows of spines that overshadow the insignificant adambulacrals with one small spine. Three adambulacral plates are about equal to one inferomarginal. At the base of each adambulacral spine is a cluster of small straight pedicellariae that are usually hidden by the large numerous tube feet. Ten to fifteen adambulacrals form an adoral carina. The mouth plates each have two apical spines and one suboral spine, and clusters of straight pedicellariae.

Similar Species

A juvenile Pycnopodia helianthoides might be mistaken for a Crossaster papposus, but the details of their aboral surfaces readily distinguish the two. Deeper than 200 metres, it can be confused with Rathbunaster californicus.


The diet of Pycnopodia helianthoides varies with geographic location and the availability of prey, such as sea urchins, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, clams and sand dollars. In the San Juan Islands, its main diet is the clam Saxidomus but on the exposed west coast, one study showed sea urchins as the main prey. P. helianthoides captures clams by excavating the gravel piece by piece with its arms and tube feet until it exposes the clam, then engulfing it with the everted stomach. The Sunflower Star swallows sea urchins whole. In food preference tests, it was equally attracted to Purple and Red sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus and S. fransiscanus), but chose Purple Sea Urchins 90 per cent of the time. A study in Barkley Sound found 72 per cent of Sunflower Stars in the act of feeding. Of these, most took snails and clams, followed by crustaceans, and only 4.6 per cent ate Purple Sea Urchins. Larger Sunflower Stars have been found in areas of intermediate exposure on soft substrates, with juveniles more common in protected waters. In the winter in Gabriola Passage, 16.6 per cent were feeding and 80 per cent of those were eating barnacles. In Prince William Sound, Alaska, P. helianthoides feeds on molluscs, but in Glacier Bay, it commonly eats Green Sea Urchins (S. droebachiensis) and Purple Sea Urchins. Both urchins show strong escape responses. Much of P. helianthoides' nutrient reserves are stored in the body wall as well as in the pyloric caeca.

P. helianthoides can outrun most benthic species, travelling up to 160 cm per minute. To defend against this predator, some species have developed specific escape responses. The abalone Haliotis accelerates and simultaneously whips its shell back and forth to break the grasp of the sea star's tube feet. The snails Tegula brunnea and Calliostoma ligatum show typical flight responses as well as shell twisting. The swimming scallops Chlamys spp., the California Sea Cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), the nudibranch Dendronotus iris and the anemone Stomphia didemon swim away when touched by this sea star.

F. helianthoides breeds from March to July by broadcast fertilization. Eggs (120 micrometres in diameter) develop into swimming larvae that may remain in the plankton for up to ten weeks feeding on single-celled plants. After the larva has settled to the bottom and metamorphosed into a young sea star, it feeds initially on the thin layer of single-celled plants coating the bottom. Near the Auke Bay Lab, Richard Carlson tagged two specimens and later saw them 3 km away.

The Sunflower Star readily drops off (autotomizes) its arms when disturbed or irritated as a result of the rapid change in the tensile strength of the catch connective tissue, described in the introduction. Autotomy is triggered by a chemical that is released by injured tissues. Presumably it allows the Sunflower Star to escape from a predator holding onto its arm. Juices from the injured sea star cause an alarm response (increased movement in the direction of the current) in nearby Sunflower Stars.



Unalaska, Aleutian Islands, to San Diego, California. Common to abundant on a variety of substrates, such as mud, sand, gravet boulders and rock, from the intertidal zone to 435 metres deep. But only one specimen was from 435 metres; all the others in Fisher 1928 and those that I have examined in museum collections were from depths of no more than 120 metres, so the 435-metre depth is abnormal and possibly an error.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-22 1:13:13 PM]
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