Ice-cold water shocked my hand as it breached the shallow tank’s surface. A rainbow of colors glittered up through gentle currents. Diverse sea animals carpeted the basin, unaware of the crowd eager to feel their spiny skin or soft tentacles.
There at the Aquarium of the Pacific’s touch tanks, I fell in love with a cerulean-colored sea star. The bright blue wasn’t what caught my eye, though.
“He has seven arms!” I gestured wildly for my roommate to come look.
She and I made the trip to the aquarium from San Diego the weekend before my twentieth birthday. We saw about half of the exhibits before arriving at the Pacific Coast tanks.
“I call him George.” I looked up from the sea star to see an aquarium educator smiling at me. “He’s a bat star, he’s been here forever.” She proceeded to share the story of his seven arms.
It was this story that, two weeks later, I struggled to remember in recounting the visit. If only I could teleport, I joked, but couldn’t shake the desire to find out more. So, one day, sitting in the trunk of my pistachio-green Prius by the sea, I dialed several phone numbers of various aquarium departments in an effort to piece George’s tale back together. I relayed all of this to the unsuspecting volunteer on the other end of the line, who helped redirect me to another staff member to fill in the gaps.
“Humans have blood in our circulatory systems, but sea stars power theirs with water instead,” I was told over the phone.
I suddenly remembered the educator’s words as we stood at the touch tank two weeks prior. “George has two madreporites, which are entry points for water to his special circulatory system,” she had said, “We think he got them by trying to clone himself. We’re not sure though. There are a lot of possible explanations.”
In front of me and my Prius, the waves sparkled as the puzzle finally clicked. “Thanks,” I hung up with newfound excitement, imagining the conversations I would continue to have with friends and family about this charismatic animal. George exists as a single sea star, but he’s one of many anchors to broader stories about adaptations, biodiversity, and ecology. He distills science through the visible.
With numerous hypotheses and experimental pathways waiting to be pursued, the scientific process uncovers endless stories about individual organisms and connections between them. I realized, for me, the discovery of how a seven-armed sea star even exists makes embarrassing phone calls to an aquarium well worthwhile.
More on bat stars & madreporites from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
This idea was drafted for an application essay and re-written/edited as part of coursework towards a Certificate in Science Communication from UC San Diego Extension. More stories to come!