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Some sea creatures inspire Christmas-related names

With Christmas just around the corner, visions of candy canes and Christmas ornaments may be dancing in our heads. A holiday mood must have prevailed when certain sea creatures were named, or perhaps the creatures themselves conjured images synonymous with this special time of year.

The candy cane shrimp, though shy and reclusive, is striped like a candy cane with a half dozen or so red bands displayed against its whitish-colored translucent body. This spindly-legged little shrimp is a lot like Santa Claus in that it is mainly active during the wee hours when other marine creatures are tucked away for the night. During the daylight hours, it hides in the back of caves or reef crevices, emerging only after dark. It has long white antennae and prominent dark eyes. The eyes contain many lenses that allow the shrimp to spot possible predators and seek immediate shelter if necessary. Candy cane shrimps are smaller than candy canes, growing to only about 2-1/2 inches in size.

Sea stars evoke images of Christmas because stars often top our Christmas trees or dangle from them as ornaments. Like tree ornaments, the stars of the sea come in all sizes, colors and textures. They typically are equipped with five arms radiating outward from a central disk or axis. Sea stars have no hearts, brains or even heads. Their toothless mouths are located on the underside of their bodies where one will also find rows or furrows containing hundreds of tiny tube feet. Some sea stars have more than five arms, with 50 being the maximum known number. Many have a light-sensitive “eye spot” at the end of each arm that helps them to interpret their environment.

Christmas-colored stars include the green linckia that, despite its name, comes in other colors as well, in addition to the red velvet star. Cushion stars can be reddish or almost golden in color. When small, they often look like Christmas cookies. Sea stars may have spines, knobs, bristles or a smooth-feeling texture. Most can regenerate an arm if they lose one. Some species simply detach an arm to regenerate a new star from the arm itself or even split apart to make new stars.

The Christmas tree worm (kio in Hawaiian) is another marine species that comes to mind at this time of year. Bearing little resemblance to an actual Christmas tree, the kio consists of a worm hiding in a rigid tube at the end of which protrude two spiral-shaped fans of tentacles used to capture food.

The waving tentacles can be orange, yellow, blue or tan in color. When threatened, the worm withdraws its tentacles and seals the opening so nothing can get to it. This critter is often found living on lobe coral and is believed to protect the coral from predation by the voracious crown of thorns sea star.

As we rush around shopping for gifts to celebrate the season, we might want to consider that one of the best gifts we could give our children would be to take care of our oceans so that these and other amazing ocean critters can survive to delight, inform and sustain future generations. Happy Holidays!

* Pam Daoust is a contributing writer for Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “the Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by Maui Ocean Center staff members. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.