Starfish Dissection Essay


Echinoderms are radially symmetrical animals that are only found in the sea (there are none on land or in fresh water). Echinoderms mean "spiny skin" in Greek. Many, but not all, echinoderms have spiny skin. There are over 6,000 species. Echinoderms usually have five appendages (arms or rays), but there are some exceptions.

Radial symmetry means that the body is a hub, like a bicycle wheel, and tentacles are spokes coming out of it (think of a starfish). As larvae, echinoderms are bilaterally symmetrical. As they mature, they become radially symmetrical. Most adult echinoderms live on the bottom of the ocean floor. Many echinoderms have suckers on the ends of their feet that are used to capture and hold prey, and to hold onto rocks in a swift current.

Sea Stars
Sea stars (group name Stelleroidea) are sometimes called starfish, though they are not real fish (they lack both vertebrae and fins). There are two sub-types of sea stars:

  • Asteroideas are the true sea stars and sun stars.
  • Ophiuroideas are brittle stars and basket stars.

The differences between the two sub-types lies in how the arms connect to the central disk. Ophiuroids have arms that do not connect with each other. There is a distinct boundary between arm and central disk. Asteroids have arms that are connected to each other. Also, it is harder to tell with asteroids where the central disk ends and the arms begin. The sea star’s top surface (or skin) looks spiny if you examine it. If you look very closely you will notice that there are different types of growths on the surface. Some bumps are used to absorb oxygen, they are called dermal branchiae.  Pedicellaria are pincher-like organs used to clean the surface of the skin. Barnacle larvae could land on a sea star and start growing if it were not for these organs.

How Do Sea Stars Move?
Each sea star had hundreds of tiny feet on the bottom of each ray. These are tube feet, or podia. These tiny feet can be filled with sea water. The vascular system of the sea star is also filled with sea water. By moving water from the vascular system into the tiny feet, the sea star can make a foot move by expanding it. This is how sea stars move around. Muscles within the feet are used to retract them. Each ray of a sea star has a light sensitive organ called an eyespot. Though it can not see nearly as well as we do, sea stars can detect light and its general direction. They have some idea of where they are going.


Prelab Questions (click here)

Preserved starfish, dissecting pan, scissors, scalpel, forceps, T-pins, pencil, lab apron, safety glasses

Procedure (Aboral Surface):

  1. Obtain a preserved starfish and rinse off any preservative with water.
  2. Place the starfish in the dissecting pan with its dorsal or aboral (top) surface upward.
  3. Observe the starfish and determine  its symmetry.
  4. Locate the central disc in the center of the starfish. Count and record the number of arms or rays the starfish has.
  5. Locate the small, round hard plate called the madreporite on top of the central disc. Water enters through this into the water vascular system. Label the central disc, arms, and madreporite on Figure 1.
  6. Feel the upper surface of the starfish for spines. These spines protect the starfish and are part of their internal skeleton. Label these on figure 1.
  7. Look at the tip of each arm and find the eyespot. Label this on Figure 1.

Figure 1 -Aboral Surface

Procedure (Oral Surface):

  1. Turn the starfish over to its ventral or oral surface (underside).
  2. Locate the mouth in the center of the central disc. Find the ring of oral spines surrounding the mouth. Label these  on figure 2.
  3. Find the groove that extends down the underside of each arm. This is called the ambulacral groove. Label this on figure 2.
  4. Feel the numerous, soft tube feet inside each groove. these are part of the water vascular system & aid in movement and feeding. Label these on Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Oral Surface

Procedure (Internal anatomy):

  1. With the starfish’s aboral surface facing you, cut off the tip of a ray. Cut along lines a, b, and c (Figure 3) and then remove this flap of skin.

Figure 3 – Cuts in Arm

  1. Inside each arm, locate two long digestive glands called the pyloric caeca. These make enzymes to digest food in the stomach. Label these in Figure 4.
  2. Cut a circular flap of skin from the central disc. (You will have to also cut around the madreporite in order to remove this flap.) Observe the stomach under the central disc. Label this on Figure 4.
  3. Remove the pyloric caeca from the dissected ray. Find the gonads (testes or ovaries) underneath. These may be small if the starfish is NOT in breeding season. Label these on figure 4. Remove these to see the rest of the water vascular system.
  4. Cut off the tip of a ray to observe the parts of the tube feet. Find the zipper-like ridge that extends the length of the ray. The tube feet are attached to these.
  5. Locate the bulb-like top of a tube foot called the ampulla. This sac works like the top of an eyedropper to create suction. The bottom of the tube foot is a sucker. Label these in Figure 4.
  6. Embedded in the soft body wall are skeletal plates called ossicles. Locate these and label them in Figure 4.

Figure 4 – Starfish Digestive & Reproductive Systems

  1. Running down the center of each arm is a lateral canal to which tube feet are attached. Label this in Figure 5.
  2. In the central disc the five lateral canals connect to a circular canal called the ring canal. Find this canal & label it on figure 5.
  3. A short, canal called the stone canal leads from the ring canal to the madreporite where water enters. Find this canal & label the stone canal & madreporite on Figure 5.
  4. Draw an arrow on Figure 5 tracing the path that water takes when it enters & moves through the starfish.

Figure 5 – Water Vascular System



1. What type of symmetry did your starfish have?

2. What is the upper surface of the starfish called?

3. What is the lower surface of the starfish called?


4. On which surface are these parts of a starfish visible:

    a. Mouth –

    b. Madreporite –

    c. Suckers –

    d. Oral spines –

    e.  Eyespots –

    d. Ambulcaral groove –

5. In words, trace the path water takes through the water vascular system.



6. What part of the tube foot creates suction to open clams whenever the starfish feeds?

7. Why do the gonads sometimes appear larger?

8. What type of skeleton, endoskeleton or exoskeleton, does the starfish have?

9. What bony plates make up its skeleton?

10. What is the function of the pyloric caeca?

11. where is the stomach of a starfish located? What can the starfish do with its stomach when feeding on clams & oysters?


12. Name the kingdom, phylum, and class for the starfish you dissected.



Purpose:   part one 2
• Describe the appearance of various organs found in a Starfish
• Name the organs that make up systems of the Starfish
• to differentiate between invertebrate phylum's
• To observe the external and internal characteristics of a Starfish

• safety goggles, gloves,  magnifying glass, a lab apron, plastic zip lock bag, preserved starfish,  pen, dissecting tray, paper towels, scissors, forceps, dissecting needle, and dissecting pins.

Echinoderms (Phylum name- which means spiny skin) are invertebrates which are characterized by an external skeleton covered with sharp spines, radial symmetry, and tube feet.  Starfish walk using their tube feet to move themselves along a surface. Their tube feet have suckers on the ends, which they use to attach themselves to rocks and to trap prey items. Starfish are marine animals. They feed on shellfish and can be a problem for the oyster industry. Although not a muscular animal, the water-vascular system (below) allows them to open shellfish. When water circulates through the system, a slight vacuum is generated at the end of each of the tube feet. The slight pressure exerted by the arms of the starfish causes a shellfish to feel threatened and close tightly. Eventually, the shellfish starts to get tired and the starfish is able to open the shell enough to push its stomach inside. The digestive glands secrete enzymes and the animal is digested inside its own shell. Starfish can re-grow their arms if they are damaged or eaten by predators. In fact, in some cases an entire sea star can be regenerated from just a single arm! 

1. EXTERNAL DISSECTIONA. Study a fluid-preserved specimen and identify: 1. Arms or rays 2. mouth - opening on ventral side (Digestive system) 3. Madreporite or sieve plate - small white circular area, off-center on dorsal surface (Water Vascular system-WVS) 4. Anus - minute, centered dorsal (Excretory system) 5. Spines - many short, rough, limy, all over (skeletal system) 6. Eyespot - small, pigmented on one end of each arm (nervous system) 7. Ambulacral grooves - one along oral surface of each ray (WVS) 8. Ambulacral spines - slender rods on margins of ambulacral grooves (WVS) 9. Tube feet - soft, slender, with expanded tips; 2 or 4 rows in each groove (WVS) 10. Gills use edge of scissors to scrap off spines exposing gills (Respiratory system)Dorsal View Ventral view2. INTERNAL DISSECTIONUse scissors to cut off the extreme tip of each arm. Then cut along the sides of an arm farthest away from madreporite. Be careful not to injure any internal organs. Lift and carefully remove the dorsal surface of each arm, loosening the delicate tissues beneath. Cut around the disc and remove the dorsal surface above the stomach surface, leaving the madreporite in place. Finally, cut between the ambulacral groove of one arm of to provide a cross section.  Identify: 1. Stomach - disc, thin, sac-like, which digests food (digestive system) 2. digestive gland - a pair in each arm, greenish, long, which produces enzymes to help digest food (digestive system)             3. Gonads - in each arm, below digestive gland, sexes separate, which produce egg and sperm eggs (reproductive system) 3. WATER VASCULAR SYSTEMMove the side of the stomach near the madreporite; Identify the following structures: 1. Stone canal - limy tube from madreporite to ring canal. Brings water from madreporite to the ring canal 2. Ring canal - hard, circular, around mouth region. Brings water from the stone canal to the radial canal 3. Tiedemannbodies - nine, small swellings in ring canal. 4. Radial canal - from ring canal along each arm connects by canals to ampullae. Sends water from the ring canal to the ampullas 5. Ampullae - many, small, spherical, connect to tube feet. Sends water from the radial canal to the foot feet so the starfish can move. 6. Tubefeet - soft, slender, with expanded tips; ventral side, help with movement and eating     LABEL THE PARTS OF THESE STARFISH USING THE TERMS IN THE FOLLOWING TABLE



1. ARM  
3. SPINE  
4. GILLS  
5. SEIVE PLATE  or madreporite  
10. mouth  
12. digestive gland  
13. GONADS  

STARFISH  PHYLUM ____________________it means ____________________

ESSAY:  How does the starfish eat and move?










Most starfish, also known as sea stars, eat by prying open the shells of prey such as clams or oysters with their arms, pushing their stomachs out their mouths and into the prey's shell, partially digesting the animal and then pulling their stomachs back into their mouths. Starfish that don't have suction disks swallow prey whole and afterwards eject undigested parts.

The unusual method of digesting prey outside their bodies allows starfish to eat animals considerably larger than their tiny mouths. Besides oysters and clams, they feed on mussels, arthropods and fish. Some species supplement their diets with algae and other organic matter.

The digestive system of a starfish occupies not only the disc but also part of the arms. The cardiac stomach that engulfs its prey releases enzymes to aid digestion. Once the partly digested prey is retracted into the disk, the food is passed on to the pyloric stomach. This has extensions into the arms lined with glands that absorb nutrients from the food. A short intestine, rectum and anus are at the top of the disk. Starfish lack distinct sense organs and centralized brains, but they have complex nervous systems and respond to light, temperature, touch and water conditions. Unable to plan their actions, if starfish detect prey, they instinctively move toward it.


Starfish move using tube feet on their undersides. Their feet use seawater to form a hydraulic system. The starfish's vascular system is open and relies on the water around it rather than internal pressure. Starfish can only move outside of water for a short time. A starfish left out of water for too long loses its ability to move, and it dies if not quickly returned to the ocean.

A starfish's mouth and gills are also located on its underside. To feed, the starfish turns its stomach inside-out through its mouth. This unique ability allows the starfish to feed on bivalves, such as clams, without completely prying open the shell. Once the starfish uses its arms to open the shell slightly, it pushes its stomach through the opening and digests the contents of the shell.

Starfish have eye spots that allow them to sense light. One of these red spots is located at the end of each arm on the starfish's top side. Though they can differentiate between light and dark, these eyes cannot see color or make out details. The dark seafloor environment that starfish live in does not require great visual acuity, so basic light sensitivity is sufficient.

0 thoughts on “Starfish Dissection Essay”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *