Serpent Starfish: Species Profile, Facts & Pictures

Serpent starfish underwater

The underwater world is home to many unique creatures, one of which is the serpent starfish, also known as brittle starfish. Besides its unique appearance, this echinoderm is famous for its amazing regeneration!

Serpent Starfish are creatures from ancient times. Their long existence testifies to their ability to adapt and withstand changes. Hence, it is no surprise they are also a favorite addition to home aquariums.

Stick around if you want to learn more about the Serpent Starfish. This article will be your ultimate guide in understanding everything there is to know about this ancient marine creature!

Serpent Starfish Overview

Common Names:Serpent Stars, Serpent Starfish, Brittle Starfish, Brittle Star
Temperament:Most Serpent Starfish species are regarded as non-aggressive
Care Level:Intermediate
Lifespan:5–8 years
Diet:Scavenger and carnivore
Breeding:Sexual, asexual, and fission
Minimum Tank Size:20 gal (75 L)
pH Level:8.1–8.4
Water Temperature:72–78 °F (22–25 °C)

What Is a Serpent Starfish?

Two serpent starfish on the sand

A Serpent Starfish is a fascinating marine creature known for its snake-like arms and regenerating ability. Being a reef-safe invertebrate from the Ophiuroidea class of echinoderms, it’s a wonderful addition to any reef aquarium due to its peaceful disposition.

A central trait of these starfish is their incredible capacity for regeneration. They also possess a central disk from which five long, slender arms extend, housing a calcium carbonate skeleton and all their vital organs.

Their central disk is critical for their survival. As long as they remain intact, Serpent Starfish can regrow lost arms, which proves highly beneficial when evading predators.

The arms of Serpent Starfish, which can reach lengths up to 24 inches in some species, are the feature that truly sets them apart.

Besides being visually intriguing, Serpent Starfish are essential to maintaining a clean and healthy aquarium environment.

These creatures are active detritivores, meaning they play a crucial role in picking off waste or debris and uneaten food particles from the bottom of the tank.

Although they share some resemblance with Common Starfish due to their similar body outline, they are not the same. 

Common Starfish belong to the Asteroidea class, while Serpent Starfish species are under the Ophiuroidea.

Serpent Starfish are related to brittle starfish and basket starfish. These three common names are used to classify the species belonging to the Ophiuroidea class.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that Serpent, Brittle, and Basket Starfish are not official classifications but rather common terms used to distinguish Ophiuroidea species based on their appearance.

Serpent Starfish Origin and History

Serpent Starfish, or Brittle Stars, have a rich, intriguing history. Dating back to the Early Ordovician period, these creatures have seen Earth’s major evolutionary shifts.

However, their full history remains elusive due to their fragile nature, causing a lack of comprehensive fossil records.

Modern brittle stars, identifiable as the species we know today, started forming in the Early Carboniferous period. They underwent a significant evolutionary change during a minor extinction event, the Mulde.

It led to a temporary miniaturization and simplification of their skeletal anatomy, which impacted their subsequent evolution.

Serpent Starfish and their starfish cousins belong to the Asterozoa subgroup of echinoderms.

These asterozoans emerged during the Ordovician period, stemming from a common somasteroid ancestor. The traits of this ancestor are visible in both modern starfish and Brittle Stars.

Over time, Serpent Starfish have proved resilient, thriving even as other echinoderms, such as crinoids and blastoids, went extinct at the end of the Permian period.

Today, they are one of the most prominent echinoderm groups, alongside asterozoans and echinozoans.

Serpent Starfish Appearance

Serpent starfish on the sand

The Serpent Starfish is a unique marine creature that belongs to the Ophiuroidea class. Like a typical sea star, they’re shaped with a central body disc and five long, thin arms that can move in any direction.

Each arm contains a hard skeleton of small plates known as ossicles, surrounded by soft tissue and a skin layer.

Underneath its central disc, there’s a mouth surrounded by five jaws. A special structure called the madreporite is also located on one of these jaws.

Serpent Starfish use tube feet for feeling around and gathering food, not for moving. That’s because their tube feet don’t have suckers on them.

You’ll see long spines sticking out when you look at their arms. These help them move around by gripping the ground. Their joints and muscles let them move quickly and squeeze into small spaces.

These starfish also have special sacs lined with tiny hairs called cilia or bursae. These bursae help with breathing and getting rid of waste.

Moreover, Serpent Starfish can be of different sizes. Some can grow up to 6 to 8 inches across, while others can be over 20 inches. They usually have a grey or brownish-red color, which can change depending on the species.

Serpent Starfish Natural Habitat

Serpent Starfish can be found worldwide, from the Arctic to tropical reefs. Over 2,000 known species exist, proving these unique creatures are highly adaptable.

They dwell in diverse marine environments, from shallow waters to depths of 11,000 feet. You can find them on the seafloor among sponges and coral reefs.

These starfish have a preference for staying hidden during the day. Their thin skeletons, composed of calcium carbonate ossicles, aren’t tough enough to fend off predators. Hence, they conceal themselves under rocks, sponges, or coral branches.

When night arrives, these nocturnal animals venture out in search of food. They are pretty helpful to the ocean’s ecosystem, as they feast on zooplankton and leftover food, acting as natural cleaners.

What Is the Difference Between a Serpent and a Brittle Starfish?

Serpent starfish held by human hand

While Serpent Starfish and Brittle Starfish might seem alike, there’s an easy way to tell them apart — their arms.

Serpent Starfish have smooth, sleek arms resembling the body of a snake. On the other hand, Brittle Starfish have arms with various spines or spikes.

These classifications, however, are unofficial and based purely on looks, not biological or taxonomical differences.

This is why some people may refer to all species under the Ophiuroidea class as Brittle Stars, regardless of their appearance. This often leads to confusion among enthusiasts and divers.

Moreover, there’s another variety under the Ophiuroidea class — the Basket Star. Their arms branch into a complex, basket-like structure, setting them apart from the Serpent and Brittle Stars.

So, while all these starfish belong to the same class, their distinct arm features give them unique identities.

For your reference, here is what a Brittle Starfish looks like:

Brittle starfish appearance

Meanwhile, here is a picture of a Basket Starfish:

Basket starfish

Serpent Starfish Temperament and Behavior

Serpent Starfish are gentle creatures. They usually share their home with fish, corals, and other marine life without causing any harm.

Serpent Stars are also known for their nighttime activity. When darkness falls, they crawl out from their hiding spots, looking for small bits of food on the ocean floor.

Their thin, flexible arms are their main tools for movement, letting them make quick, jerky motions across the seabed.

You need to be careful when handling Serpent Starfish. These crafty critters can lose their arms to escape predators. This process is known as autotomy or self-amputation.

When the star is threatened, the nerve system tells the mutable collagenous tissue near the base of the arm to break off.

But don’t worry, as they can grow back after a few months. In fact, some can even regenerate lost gut and reproductive organs.

They do not move around a lot, but they’re certainly entertaining at feeding time as they reach out for food. During the day, they usually hide under rocks or crevices or blend in with seagrass and other organisms.

They prefer the dark and tend to avoid bright light. They have special light sensors that tell them when it’s feeding time.

Watch this video to see how a Red Serpent Starfish behaves in an aquarium:

Red serpent starfish and others in tank

How to Take Care of Your Serpent Starfish

Serpent starfish with dark coloration

Caring for my first Serpent Starfish was challenging and fulfilling in my early encounters with this unique creature. Ensuring proper water conditions, such as maintaining optimal pH, temperature, and salinity, was a daily task.

In this section, we’ll comprehensively discuss what you need to consider in caring for your serpent starfish.

Lifespan and Health Issues

In a well-maintained aquarium, Serpent Starfish typically live between 3 and 8 years.

However, they are susceptible to various parasitic infections, notably from protozoans. These parasites can invade the starfish’s digestive tract and gonads, causing serious discomfort.

Other potential pests include nematodes, small crustaceans, and polychaete annelids, which can also harm your starfish.

What I usually do to protect my aquarium dwellers from these threats is that I quarantine my Serpent Starfish before adding them to your aquarium.

This can prevent the spread of parasites that may have been present in the starfish’s previous environment.

Notably, Serpent Stars are sensitive to stress, and their presence indicates a healthy aquatic community.


Serpent Starfish are scavengers and detritivores, feeding on small organisms like worms and detritus.

They’ll scour the tank’s floor for leftover food and tiny particulate matter, which they transport to their mouths using their tube feet.

Supplement their diet with chunks of clam, fish, mussels, and shrimp. This way, you can ensure they get a balanced diet.

Interestingly, if they’re not getting enough food, they might consume their legs to avoid starvation. That’s why monitoring their food intake is important and ensuring they’re getting enough to eat.

Spot-feeding them small pieces of food like raw shrimp can help keep them healthy.

Tank Requirements and Water Parameters

Serpent Starfish are most comfortable in a spacious environment, so an aquarium of at least 20 gallons is recommended.

This provides them with plenty of room to move around. An even larger tank may be necessary if you plan on keeping multiple starfish.

Remember to keep the temperature between 72 and 78°F and maintain a pH between 8.1 and 8.4 for optimum conditions.

Contrary to what you might think, Serpent Starfish don’t require light. They’re not fans of bright lights and tend to hide away when they sense it.

LED lighting should be sufficient to provide the necessary light output, but remember to turn it off at night. This practice replicates their natural day-night cycle and encourages them to come out for feeding.

The substrate is another crucial element of their tank. Serpent Starfish are used to sand, mud, and cobbles in their natural habitats.

Replicating these conditions in your tank can go a long way in making them feel at home. Rocks are particularly beneficial as they provide hiding places and recreate the structure of the starfish’s natural environment.

Most Serpent Starfish enjoy curling up in rock crevices, beneath corals, or relaxing on the sand bed, spreading their flexible arms.

Hence, your aquarium must have plenty of nooks, crannies, and hideaway spots to help them feel safe and comfortable.


When introducing a new Serpent Starfish to your aquarium, proper acclimation is crucial.

Serpent Starfish are quite sensitive to changes in water conditions and can become stressed if not properly acclimated. Therefore, take the time to introduce them to the new water conditions slowly.

A slow drip acclimation method is recommended. Place the starfish in a container with its original water and use an airline tube to drip water from the new tank into the container.

This gradual process allows the starfish to adjust to the new conditions slowly, reducing stress. Always remember, never expose the starfish to open air, as it can be extremely stressful for them and lead to shock.

After acclimation, consider quarantining the starfish, especially if it was not obtained from a reputable source, to prevent the introduction of parasites into your main tank.

Here is an informative video on how you can acclimate your starfish using the slow drip method:

Acclimating Fish and Corals: How Drip Acclimation Ensures a Safe Transition Into Your Aquarium

Serpent Starfish Reproduction

Serpent starfish with intricate colors

When it comes to knowing how Serpent Starfish multiply, we encounter a fascinating world.

Firstly, these starfish have two main reproduction methods: sexual and asexual. The specific reproductive behavior often depends on the species.

Sexual Reproduction

Most Serpent Starfish species are dioecious, meaning they have distinct male and female individuals. However, it’s challenging to tell males and females apart because they look similar.

In the wild, once they reach maturity at around 1 ½ to 2 years, they spawn by releasing their eggs and sperm into the water. This process results in floating larvae known as ophiopluteus.

After a few weeks, these larvae settle down and take on the familiar starfish shape.

In some cases, certain species, like the Amphipholis squamata, are known to be self-fertilizing hermaphrodites.

Interestingly, they also display brooding behavior, where eggs are kept and nourished inside sacs called bursae. This incubation process allows the embryos to develop before they venture out safely.

Asexual Reproduction

Serpent Starfish also exhibit an extraordinary way of increasing their numbers, known as fission.

In this process, they divide their body, and each part regrows into a full individual. This capability makes them an incredible example of regeneration in nature.

While this phenomenon of fission might inspire ideas about creating new starfish from segments, it’s crucial to know that improper separation can harm or even kill these starfish.

For instance, if an arm gets detached, it might grow back, but the starfish can perish if the central disk is separated from the arms.

Recommended Tankmates for Serpent Starfish

Serpent Starfish are renowned for their peaceable nature, making them great companions for various other marine species.

Being nocturnal, they are often out of sight during the day. They only emerge after sunset to scavenge for food, usually keeping to themselves and not causing disturbance to their tankmates.

Among suitable companions for Serpent Starfish are a range of small, non-aggressive fish species. Tangs, Damselfish, Dwarf Angelfish, clownfish, and butterflyfish coexist well with these starfish.

They share similar habitat preferences and do not perceive these starfish as threats or potential meals.

Many shrimp species also make for good companions. Peppermint Shrimp, Red Fire Shrimp, and Skunk Cleaner Shrimp can peacefully share a tank with Serpent Starfish.

However, care should be taken with larger or predatory shrimp species, such as Coral Banded Shrimp or Harlequin Shrimp, as they have been known to harm or eat starfish.

Despite their generally peaceful nature, Serpent Starfish do pose a potential risk to certain tankmates. Small snails, for instance, may be seen as a food source and could become a meal for these starfish.

The larger and more predatory Red Serpent Starfish, in particular, should be kept with larger or faster aquatic pets that can evade them.

Additionally, certain crab species like Arrow Crabs and Sally Lightfoot crabs have been reported to make attempts on starfish, so it’s recommended to avoid such pairings.

It’s also important to steer clear of keeping Serpent Starfish with certain predatory fish species. Triggerfish, pufferfish, parrotfish, and boxfish are known to find starfish appetizing and may cause harm to your Serpent Starfish.

How Much Does a Serpent Starfish Cost?

Serpent starfish blending among the rocks

The cost of Serpent Starfish can vary, generally falling in the range of $10 to $50, depending on the species, size, and the seller’s pricing. Specialty or rare species may command higher prices.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the ongoing expenses associated with maintaining a suitable tank environment.

Also, remember to consider potential shipping costs if you’re planning to purchase your starfish online. It’s always recommended to buy from a reputable supplier to ensure you’re getting a healthy specimen.

Frequently Asked Questions

Serpent starfish in shallow waters

Is a Serpent Starfish Reef Safe?

Serpent Starfish are often called reef-safe because they do not typically harm corals or other invertebrates. These creatures can be an excellent addition to your reef aquarium.

Will Serpent Starfish Eat Fish?

Serpent Starfish are not usually a threat to fish as they are scavengers by nature, not hunters. They primarily feed on detritus and uneaten food in the aquarium.

However, some larger species, like the Red Serpent Starfish, have been known to eat small fish and invertebrates if they are easy to catch. But generally, if the fish are healthy and active, the starfish won’t harm them.

Can You Touch a Brittle Starfish?

While Brittle Starfish are not harmful to humans, handling them can be detrimental to their health. These marine creatures can only survive outside water for a very short period before they begin to suffer.

Furthermore, as their name suggests, their arms are rather delicate and can easily break off when handled. This may happen either accidentally or as a defense mechanism if they feel threatened.

Although they can regrow lost arms, it’s best to avoid causing them stress and potential injury. Therefore, it’s recommended to leave them undisturbed in their aquatic environment.

How Big Do Serpent Starfish Get?

Given that there are over 2,000 species under the Ophiuroidea class, Serpent Starfish can vary significantly in size depending on the variety. Some can grow up to 6 to 8 inches across, while others can be over 20 inches.

So, what are your thoughts about the serpent starfish? If you have questions or additional interesting facts about these fascinating marine animals, leave them in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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