brittlestar, common name for echinoderms belonging to the class Ophiuroidea. The name is derived from their habit of breaking off arms as a means of defense. New arms are easily regenerated. They are also called serpent stars because of the snakelike movements of the five mobile, slender arms.
Brittlestars can be distinguished from sea stars, or starfish, by their rounded central disk, sharply set off from the arms. They have the water-vascular system and tube feet common to all echinoderms; unlike sea stars, brittlestars lack open grooves (ambulacral grooves) on the lower surface of the arms, and the tube feet serve as tactile organs. Also unlike sea stars, brittlestars walk with their arms; only some species use the tube feet for locomotion. Each arm contains a series of jointed, bonelike internal calcite plates, or ossicles, which determine the freedom of arm movements. The body and arms of brittlestars are also protected by calcite plates, which in some species consist of arrays of microlenses that focus light onto a nerve bundle, acting like a compound eye. Brittlestars can move quickly and in any direction.
Individuals are relatively small, usually less than 1 in. (2.5 cm) across the central disk, although the arms may be quite long. They are inconspicuous and often nocturnal, living under rocks, among seaweed, or buried in the sand. All are marine species, feeding on detritus and small living or dead animals. The arms move the larger food masses to the mouth, where they are fragmented by a complex jaw apparatus. Tube feet move smaller particles to the mouth. As a rule, sexes are separate, and fertilization occurs in the open sea after gametes have been discharged. A characteristic armed larval stage, the ophiopluteus, undergoes a profound metamorphosis to produce the rayed adult form.
About 2,000 species of ophiuroids are known, and a number are common along American coasts. Brittlestars are classified in the phylum Echinodermata, class Ophiuroidea.
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