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Baby starfish on the hunt whip up whirlpools

12:00pm, December 23, 2016
starfish larva

LUNCH BUFFET  Swirling whirlpools are created by a starfish larva, shown in this time-lapse image. These vortices provide the larva with a conveyor belt of food, sucking in algae. Small beads suspended in water create trails showing fluid flow.

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A baby starfish scoops up snacks by spinning miniature whirlpools. These vortices draw in tasty algae so the larva can slurp them up, scientists from Stanford University report December 19 in Nature Physics.

Before starfish take on their familiar shape, they swim the ocean as millimeter-sized larvae. They use hairlike appendages called cilia to paddle. The larvae also adjust the orientation of these cilia, the scientists found, to fine-tune their food-grabbing vortices.

Scientists studied larvae of the bat star (Patiria miniata), a starfish found on the U.S. Pacific coast, in seawater suffused with tiny beads that traced the flow of liquid. Too many swirls can slow a larva down, the scientists found, so the baby starfish adapts to the task at hand, creating fewer vortices while swimming and whipping up more of them when stopping to feed.


W. Gilpin, V.N. Prakash and M. Prakash. Vortex arrays and ciliary tangles underlie the feeding–swimming trade-off in starfish larvae. Nature Physics. Published online December 19, 2016. doi: doi:10.1038/nphys3981.

Further Reading

E. Conover. Bird plus goggles equals new insight into flight physics. Science News Online. December 5, 2016.

A. Grant. Capturing the wonders of hummingbird flight. Science News. Vol. 189, January 23, 2016, p. 32.

A. Yeager. Bacteria’s tail spins make water droplets swirl. Science News Online. June 24, 2014. 

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