Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#180: Red Spotted Sea Star

I have a history of noticing species which are new to science. Unfortunately I also have a history of noticing them after someone else has, so they are never named after me. I guess I need to secure the services of a good PR person if I'm ever going to be immortalized by having a new species named after me! I wonder if the same PR firm that promoted Amerigo Vespucci is still around? After all, his "discovery" of the Americas which now bear his name came several years after Christopher Columbus' voyage. And the unfortunate Vikings, Egyptians, Chinese and other explorers who are said to have reached our shores before either of them never had a chance.

My first encounter with a new species was while I was a student of world renowned evolutionary scientist and author Steven Jay Gould at Harvard. I was taking an invertebrate paleontology class and was looking through a drawer of fossil echinoderms collected during expeditions years before. These weren't starfish or sea urchin fossils, but an extinct group known as the helicoplacoids. I picked up one rock and noticed that the fossilized remains were unlike any helicoplacoid I'd ever seen before. Indeed, it turned out to be a new species that was eventually described and given a scientific name by J. Wyatt Durham at U. C. Berkeley... and that name was not Helicoplacus bushingius!

I've written previously about the salmon colored sea cucumber I found in Catalina waters the late 1960's. It, too, was an undescribed species but Dr. Bob Given at USC was well ahead of me in discovering it. Then there was the nudibranch Peltodoris I wrote about finding in the dive park several years ago. Both these species now have appropriate scientific names, no thanks to me! And of course there are the beautiful orange zoanthids so common at Ship Rock. They still need a scientific name, but I'd prefer spending my time underwater rather than in the lab dissecting them so I could give a good scientific description of these beautiful critters and earn a place in history.

Thanks to Scuba Luv and the King Neptune, I recently encountered another species "new" to science. We were diving incredible Farnsworth Bank, about a mile and a half off Ben Weston Point. This deep water site is a underwater seamount rising from a base depth of about 300 ft with pinnacles extending as shallow as 50 ft. I had gone there to film the beautiful and rare purple hydrocoral growing on the Bank. In fact this was my very first dive at this site since the engine on my old dive boat (the Eleutheria, later Barney's "Banana Boat") was never reliable enough to take me there, nor would I have been able to find the Bank without modern GPS.

As I worked my way across a plateau at about 100 ft, I saw a sea star (remember, that's what we call starfish in this politically correct era... so we don't offend "real" fish). I did a double take as it was unlike any of the sea stars I know from this region. In fact, it looked a bit like the tan star or the pyramid star from the Sea of Cortez. I was stumped so I took about a minute of video from which I could extract stills to send to other divers and scientists.

When I got home, I edited the footage from Farnsworth (see it on my Catalina Cable TV show) and extracted several stills of this sea star to post on various Internet sites for identification. Good thing my old college classmate and Vice President Al Gore "invented" the Internet (kind of like the Vespucci-Columbus thing). If I had "discovered" this sea star back in the 60's, it could have taken months or years before word got out. As it was, I got a number of replies. Some thought it was the leather star, others a relative of the variable star. One individual associated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History had the right answer. It was a previously discovered but undescribed sea star which had yet to be given a scientific name. For the time being, it is called the red spotted sea star.

Through my postings on the Internet, I also learned that others had seen this sea star and wondered about it. A dive friend from the mainland had seen several of them on Eagle Reef near Two Harbors. Others had photographed them elsewhere off Catalina. In fact there had been several independent "discoveries" of this species. Once again my push for biological immortality was thwarted by the fact that others had already seen this critter. The story of my life... an also ran in the race for scientific glory.

Little is known about this sea star at present. The individual I found was about 10-12" across. It had a tan base color with rows of spots on the dorsal surface. Although these spots looked brown to me, photographs taken with stronger lights indicate that they are a red or reddish brown. The five arms were somewhat slender compared to the leather star. I didn't observe this sea star feeding on anything, so I'm not sure what its ecological role is.

Hopefully the scientist writing up the technical description will complete their work soon and we'll know more. Until this work is published, it will remain a mystery. Like other humans, scientists must employ a code of secrecy in current research... at least until it is published in a reputable scientific journal. Otherwise unscrupulous scientists might steal their work and publish it as their own. You know, publish or perish. Back in the 60's there was an example of this that ruined an otherwise good scientist's reputation when he published obscure research by a Chinese scientist as his own.

Fortunately I'm more interested in publishing this newspaper column than I am in writing up my research for scientific publications. Not only is that process much more tedious, scientists don't get paid for such publications and relatively few people end up reading of their efforts. On the contrary, writing this column is fun, I get paid enough to buy lunch occasionally, and many more people read and enjoy the effort, and I get a chance to educate my readers about a world that many of them never see as they "dive dry" with me in the comfort of their easy chair (no cold water or wetsuit required).

© 2006 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, "or "Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

The as-of-yet scientifically undescribed red spotted sea star at Farnsworth Bank.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia