The magnificent sunflower star inhabits low intertidal and subtidal areas, historically ranging from Alaska to San Diego, California. Juvenile stars begin life with 5 arms, but once mature, adults have up to 24! They have very soft, spongy skin that comes in a kaleidoscope of colors - purple, green, brown, orange, pink and yellow. They are the largest sea star in the kelp forest and one of the largest in the world, reaching lengths of over three feet from tip to tip.
The sunflower star is a voracious predator often traveling up to 40 inches per minute to chase down its prey. This unique species of sea star has a skeleton composed of disconnected pieces. This allows for them to open their mouths wide enough to engulf large prey. They eat sea urchins, snails, clams, sea cucumbers, crabs and even other sea stars.
In 2013, a disease called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (SSWS) began spreading rapidly in the northeast Pacific, impacting 22 different species of sea stars. This disease devastated sunflower stars across much of their historic range, including a near total disappearance in California. As a result, the release from sea star predation allowed purple urchin populations to increase drastically, devouring wide swathes of kelp. Researchers and conservation organizations are currently developing and implementing strategies to conserve and recover sunflower stars.