Creature Feature: Leather Stars and Nature Discovery Day

Camano Island Sound Water Stewards had their first educational outreach event on May 9th and 10th, Nature Discovery Days, with Elger Bay Elementary School and Utsalady Elementary School second graders exploring Camano Island State Park. This annual event is hosted by our partners, Friends of Camano Island Parks (FOCIP). Their volunteers lead the children, parents, and teachers through the forest down to the beach. FOCIP provided an excellent lunch for all park volunteers. But the event
wouldn’t be complete or possible without Sound Water Stewards and The Beach part(y).

Once on the beach, the children and adults took turns eating lunch and watching Elaine Chan talk about estuaries. Her hands-on presentation, Estuary Soup, is complete with props, illustrations, and stuffed octopus and eagle, etc. to explain the definition and importance of estuaries, a vital habitat for all living species in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Then the rest of the SWS volunteers led the children through 3 beach stations. The Sound Toxins crew showed children micro-organisms with many microscopes available to take turns seeing real phytoplankton and other critters. At another station, Park Ranger, Merideth Peterson, talked to them about the wrack line. And other volunteers, some new from the class of 2024, some older volunteers from
class of 2002, (Scott Chase) and everyone in between, led the kids on a minus low tide beach scavenger hunt, devised by our fabulous Camano Coordinator, Hadley Beahan.

A surprise to many of us was that, besides rocks and barnacles, the leather star was the most predominant species we found on the beach. There were a few Giant Pink Sea stars present, Pisaster brevispinus. They have a small body and long, slender arms and are a bright, bubble gum pink. They are found in quiet bays and salt marshes, where the salinity fluctuates seasonally but the substrate will retain its salinity even when the tide is out. Many sea anemones were found burrowed in the sand, between the rocks along the lower tide line. A few tiny hermit crabs and shore crabs were found by the children under rocks.

The species most noticeable was the leather sea star (Dermastrias imbricata). Camano Island State Park has a rocky beach along Saratoga Passage, across from Greenbank, on Whidbey Island. We found most of the Leather Stars nestled amongst the sugar kelp (Saccharina latissimi), Turkish washcloth, (Mastocarpus sp.) a bumpy textured red seaweed, and bull kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) for moisture and protection from predators. The bright splotches of red and tan on the leather stars’ broad disc and five short plump arms distinguish it. They can be found along the West Coast of North America from Cook Inlet, AK to northern Mexico. Its upper body is soft and slippery to the touch (surprise), hence the name Leather Star. Two rows of suction feet are on the other side, out to the tip of their arms. The mouth is under the disc. Be very careful not to remove them from the water as they are fragile. They are omnivorous and feed on algae and a variety of invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea pens, sea cucumbers, and colonial tunicates. They can reach up to 20 centimeters but the biggest we found this May was about13 centimeters. They are also oviparous, meaning they disperse eggs and sperm to produce their young outside of their bodies like many other marine invertebrates, most reptiles, birds and fishes. But sea stars have an asexual way to reproduce, also. If their arms are broken off or they are torn apart, they can grow more arms to replace the missing appendages. We all learned something new at Nature Discovery Days.

I had never seen so many leather stars at CISP. The children and volunteers were happy just being outside in the sunshine, on the beach, watching boats and birds glide by. The clams squirting us from under the rocky shore made the children shriek and run and made me laugh. It’s all good in the sunshine on the shore.

Submitted by Stacey Thompson, Class of 2011.


Bibliography: Animals.net;“Seashore Life on the Northern Pacific Coast…” by E. N. Kozloff, 1983.

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