Scientists have uncovered the secrets behind one of the most bizarre feeding phenomena in the natural world – the starfish’s remarkable, retractable stomach.
When some species of starfish find a tasty snack, such as a mussel or an oyster, they extend their stomach out of their mouth to digest the soft parts of their prey. This creates a soup-like substance that they then slurp back into their body to finish off the feast.
Now, researchers at Queen Mary, University of London have discovered what triggers the stomach to perform this spectacular feat. The answer is a neuropeptide – a molecule that carries signals between neurons – called NGFFYamide. Identifying this molecule means that scientists may in the future be able to alter starfish feeding habits.
“These findings open up the possibility of designing chemical-based strategies to control the feeding of starfish,” says Prof Maurice Elphick who led the research.
“Starfish predation has an economic impact as they feed on important shellfish, such as mussels and clams. Periodic increases in starfish populations can also cause major destruction to Pacific reef tracts, such as the Great Barrier Reef, as certain species feed on reef-building corals.”
In the meantime, take a look at this video of a sunflower starfish’s mealtime in a Canadian aquarium. The starfish pushes its stomach out of its mouth and into the clam, digesting the unfortunate mollusc in its own shell.