Swastika Star Climbing the Continental Shelf
Ever so slowly, as the early hours of a December night slide by, this spindly denizen of the deep fights the chill weight of the tidal currents descending from the expansive North Sea high above. With each strenuous rotation of his radially symmetrical body, he manages to rise but a meager half-meter closer to the frothing ocean surface (and the hordes of swarming krill that nightly bask and mate there in the waning moonlight). His four arms trundle along, gaining purchase on the occasional seaweed clump, the odd rock, the leftover bleached bones of a long dead barracuda, perhaps. Inexorably but determinedly expending his remaining stores of energy, he strives to eventually replenish with satisfaction, to snack on the scrumptious schools of skittering little crustaceans romping unsuspectingly above him.
For this is an enterprising sea star, clambering up the continental shelf far northwest of the Outer Hebrides, off the rugged wind-battered coast of Scotland. The seas above are exceptionally rough at this time of winter, but nowhere near as rough as the life of a scavenging bottom dweller. Each night, this guy must try wheel his way up from the dark abyssal plain thousands of meters below to reach the upper slopes rife with possibility of predation. Each dawn — if all goes exceedingly well — he will tumble back down into the safety of the depths with his four arms fattened on luscious krill-meat!
This fellow is one of a relatively rare species of sea star, in that he has not the expected five tapering arms, but only four, of a skinny and knobby and fuzzed sort. (In fact, he’s not all that unusual. There are over 1,800 species of sea star, some with six, ten, fifteen, or even as many as 50 arms! One species can even manage to regenerate into a full sea star from just a single remaining arm.) And the swastika star’s four arms are each crimped into a jointed L-shape, giving him the distinctive swastika silhouette for which his species is named. An evolutionary expediency, those four funkily formed arms also provide him with the ability to effectively locomotively churn along, like some offbeat underwater tractor.
That silhouette, and its unfortunate historical significance, however, have not done this creature or his ilk very much good in recent decades. There are not too many kinds of marine animal, after all, who relish the approach of dozens of shadowy pinwheeling swastikas arriving out of the watery gloom (especially since they always seem to move about in ordered rows and ranks: a demented abyssal army!). These sea stars have thus been shunned by many of their ocean floor neighbors.
Swastika stars once numbered in the millions, and populated the coastal continental shelf from the Wadden Zee to Helgoland Bay, from Langelandsbaelt to Tromper Wiek, and from Skagerrak to Kattegat. But, since the late 1940s, they have been banished from virtually all of the waters ringing the German, Dutch and Flemish shores (though ichthyologists have encountered disturbing new forms of ‘shaved’ swastikas — young creatures that mimic much of the behavior of adult swastikas, but, for whatever reason, have shed their spiky papillae).
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