Looking to add something spectacular and unusual to your reef aquarium? We would like to recommend the fascinating, docile, and reef-safe Serpent (Brittle) starfish for your consideration.
This amazing marine invertebrate looks similar to the common starfish due to their body outline. In addition, they come in a variety of colors, sizes, and forms, and pack extraordinary regenerative abilities.
Serpent (Brittle) stars play a vital role in maintaining the hygiene of saltwater aquariums since they are active detritivores; spending a great deal of their time picking off detritus and food particles at the bottom of the tank.
Keep reading for everything there is to know about the Serpent (Brittle) starfish— its taxonomy, appearance, behavior, care, reproduction, as well as useful buying tips.
Quick Notes about Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
|Name||Serpent (Brittle) starfish|
|Scientific Name||Ophiuroidea sp.|
|Tank size (minimum)||20 gallons (~80 liters)|
|Keeping||Easy to medium|
|Optimal Temperature||22 – 27°C (~72°F – 79°F)|
|Water type||SG = 1.021 – 1.025|
|Optimal PH||8.1 – 8.4|
|Optimal KH||8 – 12|
|Nitrate||Less than 20 ppm|
|Diet||Mostly Carnivore / Omnivore|
|Temperament||Non-aggressive (except a few species)|
|Life span||up to 8 years|
|Color Form||Typically, brown with shades of white, cream, red, blue, yellow, or green|
Origin of Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Serpent stars are echinoderms in the class Ophiuroidea; the largest of the five existing classes of Echinodermata.
This particular class of marine animals contains three distinct members:
- “Brittle stars”,
- “Serpent stars”, and
- “Basket stars”,
They are closely related and identical to starfish in the class Asteroidea.
Ophiuroidea comprises over 2000 species of brittle stars/serpent stars and about 270 known genera. The binomial name of this group emanates from Ancient Greek words; óphis “serpent” and ourá “tail” which refers to the long serpent-like arms of the animal.
Habitat of Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Serpent (Brittle) starfish can be found in areas ranging from shallow intertidal zones (on coral reefs and seagrass beds) to abyssal depths.
They are abundant in all marine habitats.
They inhabit diverse coral reefs around the world (Caribbean, Eastern Asia, Fiji, Africa, Australia, etc.), where they stay hidden under large rocks, rest on the sand bed, and live in close association with corals and sponges.
Description of Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Ophiuroids have a typical five-segment radial (penta-radial) body symmetry, which is ideal for that of the starfish.
They bear five long, thin, and flexible arms that connect to a central body disk. Moving on, the underside of the disk contains the mouth which possesses five toothed jaws made up of skeletal plates, and the madreporite is domiciled on one of the jaw plates.
The size of a large adult serpent starfish depends on the species. For example, Banded Brittle Starfish (Ophiolepis superba), one of the most popular species in the aquarium hobby, usually grows up to 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm). While others can be more than 20 inches (50 cm)in diameter, measured from one arm tip to another.
They possess a calcitic skeleton which is composed of numerous individual plates called ossicles. These calcite ossicles are held together to form multiple armor plates that are covered by an outer skin (epidermis).
The ossicles of Ophiuroids are engulfed by a thin ring of soft tissue, and four series of jointed plates, present on the upper, lower, and lateral surfaces of the arm. Notably, the lateral plates have elongated spines projecting outwards, and they aid provide traction against the substrate while the animal moves its body.
Also present in Ophiuroids is the water-vascular system which its vessels end in tube feet, unlike many other echinoderms, they only utilize their tube feet for sensory and food collection, and not for locomotion due to the absence of suckers.
In serpent starfish, cilia-lined sacs (bursae) are responsible for the excretion and exchange of gases. Furthermore, water flows through the bursae and this is facilitated by the cilia or muscular contraction, whereas oxygen is transported through the body by the hemal system; a network of vessels different from the water vascular system.
They reach their maximum size by 4 – 5 years of age.
In the aquarium, under optimal conditions, Serpent (Brittle) starfish can live up to 8 years. However, in most cases, their life span is ranged between 3 – 5 years.
Is There Difference Between Serpent and Brittle Starfish?
The distinction between the Serpent starfish and Brittle stars is that the arms of Brittle stars are usually covered in spikes or spines of different sizes whereas those of the Serpent starfish are smooth and without projections, can be likened to the body of a serpent.
In some species, Brittle star bodies are a little bit thinner than Serpents. However, there are so many Serpent (Brittle) starfish species, that, in some cases, it can be even vice versa.
Behavior of Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Generally, this five-armed echinoderm can be attributed as a docile and peaceful marine invertebrate that can live with fish, corals, and other invertebrates without inflicting any form of injury on them, though there are few species that are not considered reef-safe.
They are mostly active at night— crawling out from hidden areas to search for tiny food bits on the substrate.
In addition, be careful when you are handling them. Serpent (Brittle) stars are able to detach their arms as diversion tactics in a bid to escape predators, and they can regenerate the lost arms or arm segments after some months. Interestingly, a genus of Serpent starfish “Amphiuridae” can equally grow back gut and gonad fragments lost along with the arms.
They use their thin arms for locomotion; by rowing their flexible arms, these creatures are able to make fairly fast jerk movements on the aquarium floor.
They do not move around much but they are fun to watch at feeding as they reach out for food.
Feeding Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Typically, Serpent (Brittle) stars are primarily scavengers or detritivores.
In aquariums, they tend to roam on the substrate and rockworks in search of tiny particulate matter and leftover fish food to consume. These meals are transported into the mouth by the tube feet.
Serpent starfish is also known to prey on small organisms such as worms e.g. feather duster tube worms.
Supplementary feeding is well-appreciated, they can ingest bits of clam, fish, mussel, shrimp, sinking pellet foods, and flake foods.
It is better to spot feed them large chunks of food to keep them healthy. They really love raw shrimp.
Interesting fact: If the Serpent (Brittle) star is not getting enough to eat they might eat their own legs to keep from starving,
How Often Should We Feed Serpent (Brittle) Starfish?
For the most part, they feed themselves. Mainly because they scavenge for food all the time.
However, for a better result, we can feed a bit of meaty food 2 – 3 times a week.
Is Serpent (Brittle) Starfish Coral Safe?
Despite the fact that most Serpent (Brittle) stars are considered reef safe because they are fine for hard and soft corals, some species can still exhibit predatory behavior when they are very hungry.
Keep in mind that Brittle and serpent stars are omnivorous. It means that the potential is there for almost all of them. Even though, in most cases, they are well behaved, especially when they are kept well fed.
In addition, keep in mind that these species have their own personalities. Thus, it is not possible to completely predict their behavior. While some of them will often live peacefully in reef tanks for years. Others can go rogue and start hunting for snails, shrimp, and even small crabs one day.
There are reports that once peaceful Serpent (Brittle) star swallowed snails live, shell and all! Other aquarists saw how they broke the legs of Coral banded shrimp, Arrow crabs and ate them later (by the way these are pretty aggressive shrimp and crab).
So, do not let it get hungry! Can’t really blame them. They should be kept in higher volume tanks with medium to large size fish.
Tank Requirements and Water Parameters
I need to start off by saying that there is no difference between Serpent and Brittle starfish care.
Unlike most common aquarium stars which often do horrific in our systems (they have a tendency to just slowly wither away). Serpent (Brittle) starfish are the only ones that tend to do well.
However, for optimal results, here are some handy tips that you should follow in order to keep them in a reef tank.
Do not add them to the tank if it is not cycled yet. You need an established tank without sudden changes is salinity, temperature, and pH.
The recommended tank size for housing the Serpent (Brittle) star is a minimum of 20 gallons (80 liters).
This reef invertebrate needs lots of space to roam, in addition to ample hiding places. So, a larger tank is required if you want to house many specimens at once.
Water type, Temperature, Hardness, and pH:
Temperature: The ideal temperature for keeping Serpent starfish is between the range of 22 °C – 27 °C (72 °F – 80 °F).
pH: Ideal pH values is between 8.1 – 8.4.
Hardness: Water hardness should be in the range of 8 – 12 dkH.
Specific gravity: 1.023 – 1.025
Calcium: 380 – 450 ppm
Magnesium: 1200 – 1350 ppm
Serpent (Brittle) stars starfish do not have lighting demands. In fact, they do not appreciate bright light at all.
Although Serpent (Brittle) stars do not have eyes, they can sense it. When they feel it, they immediately seek the nearest shelter to hide in or under.
You can supply the needed light output with a LED lighting fixture, and endeavor to turn off the lights at night to encourage them to come out of hiding for feeding.
The substrate found in its natural habitats is often composed of sand, mud, cobbles of varying sizes and shapes, with plenty of sizeable rocks in sight, and this should be replicated in the home aquarium for the starfish’s comfort.
Most of the time, Serpent (Brittle) starfish will fit and hideaway in rock crevices, the underside of corals, or relax on the sand bed with their flexible arms spread widely.
Caring and Keeping Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
The Serpent starfish is fairly easy to care for.
This starfish needs abundant food, good water quality, and stable water conditions since it is intolerant of sudden changes in pH, oxygen levels, and salinity. For this reason, one should rule out every possibility of keeping this invertebrate in a new tank that is still cycling.
Additionally, bear in mind that the Serpent (Brittle) starfish cannot tolerate copper-based medications, so it’s best to avoid them.
Be sure to carry out regular partial water changes to eliminate excess nitrates in the tank water; the starfish prefers tank water that is particularly low in nitrates.
Also, keep an eye out for the starfish in your aquarium to ensure that they are in good shape and not being threatened by other tank inhabitants, they don’t possess mechanisms to harm predators, hence pair them with friendly tankmates.
Another thing to note is the importance of acclimation, it’s a good practice to acclimate the Serpent (Brittle) starfish before adding it to your tank since they are quite sensitive to changes in water conditions and thus, should be given plenty of time to adjust to the conditions in your tank.
Important: When you are going to acclimate them, do not take them out into the open air. It is very stressful for the starfish and can shock them. Poor acclimation is the number one cause of stars losing legs as well.
In this case, a slow drip acclimation is the best option, and you need a small container and a piece of airline tubing to perform this exercise. Insert the starfish in the container alongside the water from the store, then start a siphon from the reef tank with the airline tubing.
Now, tie a knot in the tubing to slow down the flow. Next, let the water from your tank slowly mix into the old aquarium water, let it continue till you have at least four times the original water in the container.
At this point, you can choose to add the animal directly to your main display tank or quarantine it first — this is very necessary especially if you didn’t purchase the specimen from a reputable breeder.
For more details, you can also read my article “How I Drip Acclimate Shrimp and Why”. The principles are the same.
Problems Associated with Serpent (Brittle) starfish
Serpent (Brittle) starfish is prone to parasitic attacks by protozoans which are capable of making their way into their digestive tract and gonads.
That aside, nematodes, small crustaceans, and polychaete annelids may also plague the starfish’s body systems and cause extreme discomfort.
So, do well to quarantine the Serpent (Brittle) starfish before introducing it into your reef aquarium, because it may have been exposed to these parasites in its previous home.
Reproduction of Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
There are not many reported cases of the Serpent (Brittle) starfish breeding in reef aquariums. Except for mini brittle stars (smaller than a quarter) which will reproduce quickly.
In order to learn more about their reproduction cycle, you need to know the specific ID names of the star.
The point is that the majority of the Serpent (Brittle) starfish species are dioecious (have separate sexes), but hermaphrodites exist and self-fertilization has been shown for at least one species, Amphipholis squamata.
They become mature relatively late (at 1.5 – 2 years old).
Some are known to brood their young internally. They are nurtured in pouches within their bodies and released as juveniles from the parent organism. In addition, few are capable of providing nourishment to their young ones through the wall of the bursa during this period.
On the other hand, some species do not brood their young. Here, the fertilized eggs undergo a free-swimming larval stage and metamorphose further into adults. Depending on the species, the larval stage can last up to 3 – 4 weeks before they transform into small copies of adults.
Moreover, many species can equally reproduce asexually through fission, whereby the body parts split and missing parts regenerate to form new individuals.
Serpent (Brittle) Starfish and Suitable Tankmates
Most Serpent (Brittle) Starfish are peaceful creatures. They will never bother any shrimp, fish, or any other animal in your reef tank.
Therefore, they can be paired with most small and peaceful fish species. For example, compatible fish tankmates are Tangs, Blue/yellow damselfish, Dwarf Angelfish, Clownfish, and Butterflyfish.
Do not place Ophiarachna incrassate in a community tank! This Serpent (Brittle) starfish is described as a crepuscular and nocturnal predator. Aquarists often call it a green monster.
They grow huge (up to 50 cm or 20 inches) and will eat anything they can get their arms on – fish, shrimp, crabs are all on the menu!
Another species that reef keepers should approach with a great deal of caution is the Red Serpent starfish, Ophioderma squamosissimus. This is a large Serpent starfish that is very likely to feast on small fishes and invertebrates in your reef aquarium, so it’s advisable to avoid it.
However, you should avoid keeping them with predatory fish like Triggerfish, Pufferfish, Parrotfish, Boxfish, etc.
Never keep the Serpent (Brittle) Starfish and predatory shrimp such as Harlequin shrimp together. This shrimp species is carnivorous and eats only starfishes! Be careful with Coral banded shrimp, they are also pretty aggressive and strong enough to hurt the starfish.
Be careful with snails, Serpent (Brittle) Starfish might try to eat them, especially small ones.
Buying Serpent (Brittle) Starfish
Due to its increasing popularity in the hobby, this easy-going invertebrate is available for sale at offline and online stores. The price for a single sizeable specimen (between 3 to 6 inches or 7- 15 cm) is about $20, however, this may cost above $30 if the species is a fancy or rare type.
Anyway, you need to look out for certain signs while shopping for the Serpent starfish, the presence of lesions and white slimy substance on its body is an indication that it is not healthy, therefore you might want to skip that.
Moreover, keep in mind that a specimen missing a few arms is not necessarily unhealthy. So, do away with that thought; you can actually add a healthy starfish with lost arms to your collection, and it will regenerate those arms after a brief period under good tank conditions.
Lastly, make sure to shop for small-sized Serpent (Brittle) starfish since those are much easier to keep and lack the aggressive tendencies reported in large ones.
For example, you can opt for the much popular Banded Serpent starfish (Ophiolepis superba) instead. Also known as Banded Brittle Starfish, Banded Serpent Star, Black-banded Serpent Star, Brittle Sea Star, Fancy Serpent Sea Star, Mosaic Brittle Star, Painted Serpent Starfish, Superb Brittle Star, Tiger-striped Sea Star, and Zebra Brittle Starfish.
This reef invertebrate is an excellent addition to established saltwater aquariums, and it makes a lasting impression on viewers due to its cool and contrasting colors, unique forms, and rapid jerky movements.
Be sure to maintain good water quality/ optimal water parameters in the tank, in addition to ample food and hiding places, and your Serpent (Brittle) starfish will thrive for many years. This Ophiuroid won’t be a foe to your tank inhabitants and that’s for a fact, so endeavor to get one or two for your reef tank.