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But after four years of monitoring the coral colonies, an interesting trend began to emerge. One particular brittle star, Asteroschema clavigerum, was always found on healthy sections of an octocoral called Paramuricea biscaya, the coral that was the most affected by the spill. This left the scientists wondering: are the brittle stars simply avoiding sick portions of the coral? Or are they actively protecting the corals against damage from the oil spill?
Brittle stars, serpent stars, or ophiuroids (from Latin ophiurus 'brittle star'; from Ancient Greek ὄφις (óphis) 'serpent', and οὐρά (ourá) 'tail'; referring to the serpent-like arms of the brittle star) are echinoderms in the class Ophiuroidea, closely related to starfish. They crawl across the sea floor using their flexible arms for locomotion. The ophiuroids generally have five long, slender, whip-like arms which may reach up to 60 cm (24 in) in length on the largest specimens.
The Ophiuroidea contain two large clades, Ophiurida (brittle stars) and Euryalida (basket stars). Over 2,000 species of brittle stars live today. More than 1,200 of these species are found in deep waters, greater than 200 m deep.
The ophiuroids diverged in the Early Ordovician, about 500 million years ago. Ophiuroids can be found today in all of the major marine provinces, from the poles to the tropics. Basket stars are usually confined to the deeper parts of this range; Ophiuroids are known even from abyssal (>6,000 m) depths. However, brittle stars are also common members of reef communities, where they hide under rocks and even within other living organisms. A few ophiuroid species can even tolerate brackish water, an ability otherwise almost unknown among echinoderms. A brittle star's skeleton is made up of embedded ossicles.
Of all echinoderms, the Ophiuroidea may have the strongest tendency toward five-segment radial (pentaradial) symmetry. The body outline is similar to that of starfish, in that ophiuroids have five arms joined to a central body disk. However, in ophiuroids, the central body disk is sharply marked off from the arms.
The disk contains all of the viscera. That is, the internal organs of digestion and reproduction never enter the arms, as they do in the Asteroidea. The underside of the disk contains the mouth, which has five toothed jaws formed from skeletal plates. The madreporite is usually located within one of the jaw plates, and not on the upper side of the animal as it is in starfish.
The mouth is rimmed with five jaws, and serves as an anus (egestion) as well as a mouth (ingestion). Behind the jaws is a short esophagus and a stomach cavity which occupies much of the dorsal half of the disk. Digestion occurs within 10 pouches or infolds of the stomach, which are essentially ceca, but unlike in sea stars, almost never extend into the arms. The stomach wall contains glandular hepatic cells.
Ophiuroids are generally scavengers or detritivores. Small organic particles are moved into the mouth by the tube feet. Ophiuroids may also prey on small crustaceans or worms. Basket stars in particular may be capable of suspension feeding, using the mucus coating on their arms to trap plankton and bacteria. They extend one arm out and use the other four as anchors. Brittle stars will eat small suspended organisms if available. In large, crowded areas, brittle stars eat suspended matter from prevailing seafloor currents.
In basket stars, the arms are used to sweep food rhythmically to the mouth. Pectinura consumes beech pollen in the New Zealand fjords (since those trees hang over the water). Eurylina clings to coral branches to browse on the polyps.
Like all echinoderms, the Ophiuroidea possess a skeleton of calcium carbonate in the form of calcite. In ophiuroids, the calcite ossicles are fused to form armor plates which are known collectively as the test. The plates are covered by the epidermis, which consists of a smooth syncytium. In most species, the joints between the ossicles and superficial plates allow the arm to bend to the side, but cannot bend upwards. However, in the basket stars, the arms are flexible in all directions.
Both the Ophiurida and Euryalida (the basket stars) have five long, slender, flexible, whip-like arms, up to 60 cm in length. They are supported by an internal skeleton of calcium carbonate plates referred to as vertebral ossicles. These "vertebrae" articulate by means of ball-and-socket joints, and are controlled by muscles. They are essentially fused plates which correspond to the parallel ambulacral plates in sea stars and five Paleozoic families of ophiuroids. In modern forms, the vertebrae occur along the median of the arm.
The ossicles are surrounded by a relatively thin ring of soft tissue, and then by four series of jointed plates, one each on the upper, lower, and lateral surfaces of the arm. The two lateral plates often have a number of elongated spines projecting outwards; these help to provide traction against the substrate while the animal is moving. The spines, in ophiuroids, compose a rigid border to the arm edges, whereas in euryalids they are transformed into downward-facing clubs or hooklets. Euryalids are similar to ophiurids, if larger, but their arms are forked and branched. Ophiuroid podia generally function as sensory organs. They are not usually used for feeding, as in Asteroidea. In the Paleozoic era, brittle stars had open ambulacral grooves, but in modern forms, these are turned inward.
Many species brood developing larvae in the bursae, effectively giving birth to live young. A few, such as Amphipholus squamata, are truly viviparous, with the embryo receiving nourishment from the mother through the wall of the bursa. However, some species do not brood their young, and instead have a free-swimming larval stage. Referred to as an ophiopluteus, these larvae have four pairs of rigid arms lined with cilia. They develop directly into an adult, without the attachment stage found in most starfish larvae. The number of species exhibiting ophiopluteus larvae are fewer than those that directly develop.
Some brittle stars, such as the six-armed members of the family Ophiactidae, exhibit fissiparity (division through fission), with the disk splitting in half. Regrowth of both the lost part of the disk and the arms occur which yields an animal with three large arms and three small arms during the period of growth.
The West Indian brittle star, Ophiocomella ophiactoides, frequently undergoes asexual reproduction by fission of the disk with subsequent regeneration of the arms. In both summer and winter, large numbers of individuals with three long arms and three short arms can be found. Other individuals have half a disk and only three arms. A study of the age range of the population indicates little recruitment and fission is the primary means of reproduction in this species.
In this species, fission appears to start with the softening of one side of the disk and the initiation of a furrow. This deepens and widens until it extends across the disk and the animal splits in two. New arms begin to grow before the fission is complete, thus minimizing the time between possible successive divisions. The plane of fission varies so that some newly formed individuals have existing arms of different lengths. The time period between successive divisions is 89 days, so theoretically, each brittle star can produce 15 new individuals during the course of a year.
Brittle stars generally sexually mature in two to three years, become full grown in three to four years, and live up to five years. Members of Euryalina, such as Gorgonocephalus, may live much longer.
Brittle stars use their arms for locomotion. Brittle stars move fairly rapidly by wriggling their arms which are highly flexible and enable the animals to make either snake-like or rowing movements. However, they tend to attach themselves to the sea floor or to sponges or cnidarians, such as coral. They move as if they were bilaterally symmetrical, with an arbitrary leg selected as the symmetry axis and the other four used in propulsion. The axial leg may be facing or trailing the direction of motion, and due to the radially symmetrical nervous system, can be changed whenever a change in direction is necessary.
Over 60 species of brittle stars are known to be bioluminescent. Most of these produce light in the green wavelengths, although a few blue-emitting species have also been discovered. Both shallow-water and deep-sea species of brittle stars are known to produce light. Presumably, this light is used to deter predators[further explanation needed].
Brittle stars live in areas from the low-tide level downwards. Six families live at least 2 m deep; the genera Ophiura, Amphiophiura, and Ophiacantha range below 4 m. Shallow species live among sponges, stones, or coral, or under the sand or mud, with only their arms protruding. Two of the best-known shallow species are the green brittle star (Ophioderma brevispina), found from Massachusetts to Brazil, and the common European brittle star (Ophiothrix fragilis). Deep-water species tend to live in or on the sea floor or adhere to coral, urchins, or xenophyophores. The most widespread species is the long-armed brittle star (Amphipholis squamata), a grayish or bluish, strongly luminescent species.
The main parasite to enter the digestive tract or genitals are protozoans. Crustaceans, nematodes, trematodes, and polychaete annelids also serve as parasites. Algal parasites such as Coccomyxa ophiurae cause spinal malformation. Unlike in sea stars and sea urchins, annelids are not typical parasites.
Between 2,064 and 2,122 species of brittle stars are currently known, but the total number of modern species may be over 3,000. This makes brittle stars the most abundant group of current echinoderms (before sea stars). Around 270 genera are known, these are distributed in 16 families, which makes them at the same time a relatively poorly diversified group structurally, compared with the other echinoderms. For example, 467 species belong to the sole family of Amphiuridae (frail brittle stars which live buried in the sediment leaving only their arms in the stream to capture the plankton). There are also 344 species in the family of Ophiuridae. 781b155fdc