The Banded Brittle Star

A reef aquarium is a wonderful picture for the aquarist or anyone else to watch. Once the reef is complete often the aquarist will wonder if there is any way it can be ‘improved’. Sometimes the diversity of life can be widened thus adding to interest.

A creature that is definitely different is the banded brittle star, properly called Ophiolepis superba. It is a creature of the coral reefs and has no difficulty in moving among the rocks and over sand. It is a scavenger and should not harm corals, small mobile invertebrates or fish. It is reasonably easy to keep, in other words reasonably hardy. On purchase the brittle star could be say 4″ (circa 10cm) and could grow to say 10″ (circa 25cm) arm tip to arm tip, though likely to be smaller in an aquarium. The suggested minimum size for the aquarium is 30 gallons.

When a brittle star is introduced to the aquarium the aquarium must not be newly set up. This is because stability is required – the biological system (ammonia/nitrite/nitrate) should be completely stable. Once this is proven by testing over time the next requirement is stability of the seawater specific gravity (SG), there should not be any variation, except very small because of say evaporation before a top-up. This is also proved by regular testing. The brittle star is sensitive to sudden salinity variations. So the aquarist should be certain that the SG parameters are acceptable.

The banded brittle star will live happily in a mixed reef system and as it is a mixed reef it is unlikely there will be certain fish present, for example angels (excluding the dwarf types), larger wrasses, triggerfish etc. A larger crab or harlequin shrimps will also bring problems. Though unlikely to be present, a predatory starfish will cause trouble. If any of the aforementioned types are present then do not introduce a banded brittle star as it is likely to be generally investigated, nibbled or worse.

Once the decision has been made to have a brittle star then certain procedures should be followed. The dealer should bag the star underwater being very gentle. When travelling, unless the journey time is very short, provide some insulation around the bag to conserve heat. Once home the bag should be floated in the aquarium and the acclimatisation procedure patiently followed. Using a teaspoon remove the first teaspoon of seawater from the bag and discard it. Place a teaspoon of aquarium seawater in the bag, leave for a few minutes then repeat. Keep doing this for an hour or more, whatever is needed, depending on the size of the bag and the amount of seawater to be changed. After the appropriate time the star will be ready to go into the aquarium. Gently and very slowly allow the free space in the bag to fill with aquarium seawater. Lower the bag into the aquarium as close to the bottom as possible and gently turn so the star can escape, it is likely to hide fairly quickly. The star will find a refuge among the rocks but, for luxury accommodation, a large clam shell or two is ideal.

Brittle stars are efficient nocturnal scavengers but should be fed. Feeding should start as soon as possible after introduction to the aquarium, say after the first night and towards the end of the first aquarium lights on period. The food should be fresh or defrozen fish etc, cut to about the size of a pea. Place the morsel as close as possible to the star, hopefully any seawater current will not move the food. Once the star has settled it is likely to be seen when the lights are on, and could respond to food availability in the same period. If this occurs, feed the fish then the star if the fish steal the star’s dinner. One feed a day should be enough, reduce the feeds if obviously required.

So why is the word ‘brittle’ used in the name? This is because the star can shed an arm or more as a defensive mechanism (they grow back), this can also occur if the conditions are too extreme. Fortunately, the banded brittle star is reasonably hardy and doesn’t shed an arm for little reason.

The banded brittle star can be obtained fairly easily but there is a warning (well, there has to be at least one!). The colours can vary quite a lot though not extremely so. If the dealer is selling some called ‘green brittle stars’ don’t buy one as these are predatory unlike the banded brittle star.

The reef aquarium can be so interesting and, once settled and even coming out in broad daylight, the banded brittle star certainly adds to it.