Reef safe starfish

15 Reef safe starfish (and 3 that aren’t)

I am guilty of making a starfish impulse buy. Have you ever been tempted? These amazing invertebrates can be hard to resist

Reef safe starfish and sea stars

The monicker reef safe can only be liberally applied to any member of the starfish family. They tend to be reef safe, right up until the point where they aren’t. Meaning…reef safe most of the time, but when especially hungry, these opportunistic eaters may dine on one of your reef tank inhabitants, at one time or another.

Banded serpent starfish is generally considered reef safe
Banded starfish generally considered reef safe but may cause some issues with sessile inverts

List of reef safe starfish and non-reef safe starfish for the saltwater aquarium

Common name Latin name Reef safe Size Difficulty level Diet
Asterina Asterina sp. Yes or No 0.75 in. Easy Omnivore
Brittle sea star (fancy) Ophiure protoreaster Yes 10 in. Moderate Omnivore
Brittle sea star (banded) Ophiocoma scolopendrina Yes 12 in. Easy Omnivore
Brittle sea star (fancy yellow) Ophiarachna sp. Yes 10 in. Moderate Omnivore
Red brittle sea star Ophiocoma sp. Yes 10 in. Moderate Omnivore
Tiger striped Serpent Ophiolepsis superba Yes 14 in. Easy Carnivore
Fancy red brittle sea star Ophiomastix sp. Yes 10 in. Moderate Omnivore
Orange sea star Echinaster sp. Yes 6 in. Moderate Omnivore
Carribbean serpent sea star Ophioderma sp. Yes 14 in. Moderate Carnivore
Red Tile sea star Fromia monilis Yes 5 in. Moderate Yes
Indian Sea Star Fromia indica Yes 5 in. Moderate Omnivore
Blue Linckia sea star Linckia laevigata Yes 12 in. Extreme Omnivore
Knobby fancy Brittle Ophiomastix annulosa Yes 10 in. Moderate Carnivore
Sand Sifting Astropecten polycanthus Yes 12 in. Easy Omnivore
Red sea star Fromia milleporella Yes 6 in. Moderate Omnivore
Red Linckia Linckia sp. Yes 12 in. Moderate Omnivore
Red Knob Protoreaster linckii No 12 in. Easy Carnivore
Chocolate Chip Protoreaster nodosus No 15 in. Easy Carnivore
Table of starfish types including reef safe and not safe members

A few warnings about reef safe starfish in an aquarium

The reef tank inhabitants most likely to be harmed by a reef safe starfish on this list are the non-coral, non-mobile or slow-moving invertebrates, like anemones, sponges, clams, mussels.

The non-reef safe starfish, the Red Knob and Chocolate Chip from the Protoreaster genus, as well as certain Asterina sea stars are also known to eat corals.

Knobby starfish is related to chocolate chip starfish and is also not reef safe

There are also reports of certain sea stars being ambush predators that will consume reef fish. Some of these reports are likely to have actually been the result of a starfish eating the already deceased remains of a fish that died in the evening, but there are definitely confirmed situations where a starfish has laid in waiting above an unsuspecting resting saltwater aquarium fish and managed to trap and eat it while the lights are out.

Reef safe starfish aquarium conditions

It would be best if you consider any of the starfish on this list, whether they are reef safe or not, to be delicate invertebrates. They tend to do best when kept in pristine, stable reef tank conditions:

  • Salinity: 1.025 specific gravity
  • pH: 8.1-8.4
  • Hardness: 8-12
  • Temperature: 72-78 Fahrenheit

Drip acclimation is generally the best way to get them used to the conditions in your aquarium.

When you’re done reading this post, be sure to read up on the 9 Most Important Reef Tank Water Parameters here.

Feeding sea stars

The thing I enjoyed the most about the chocolate chip starfish I had in my tank a few years ago was feeding time. It is actually so much fun, because you can literally feed them by hand. An otherwise motionless starfish will spring to life and become surprisingly mobile when you wave a small piece of seafood next to it and hold it on the surface of the glass, rock, or sanded next to it.

The starfish will start to climb over the food with tiny, suction cup feet try to move the center of its body directly on top of the food, where it will then send its stomach outside of its tough shell to grab and start to digest dinner outside.

chocolate chip starfish eating

It is best to keep your starfish well fed by feeding at least 2-3 times a week–and if you feed them by hand, like I described above, when they are on the aquarium glass, you are in for a treat as you get front row seats to see the whole mesentary/stomach trick.

Types of starfish

Asterina

Asterina starfish
Asterina starfish are common live rock hitchhikers. Mostly harmless, they will occasionally cause problems by eating corals

You probably won’t find Asterina starfish available for sale at your local fish store, but you may end up with them in your aquarium anyway. These starfish are generally considered to be harmless, however they can multiply to plague proportions in a reef tank and may actually eat some coral species.

Brittle Starfish

Brittle starfish on rock and sand

There are several different Brittle starfish species, including Fancy, Banded, Fancy Yellow and Red. They are reef safe starfish that are relatively common in the trade.

Serpent

There are a few different Serpent starfish species that you may encounter in the aquarium world. Most are considered to be reef safe. It is best to avoid the notorious Green Serpent starfish or any very large specimens as they are known to be on the aggresive/active scale and may even hunt your unsuspecting fish.

Protoreaster

Chocolate chip starfish is not reef safe
Chocolate chip starfish is adorable, yes, but reef safe-no

The Protoreaster genus has two of the most commonly seen starfish species in the aquarium trade, the Knobby Sea Star and the Chocolate Chip Starfish. These echinoderms are usually inexpensive and are so cool looking that they are hard to resist–I know I couldn’t resist them. But the problem is that they are not reef safe. Both the Knobby and Chocolate Chip starfish will eat corals, so they are best left out of the reef tank.

Fromia

Fromia starfish species on live rock with SPS in a reef tank

There are three very popular and extremely attractive reef safe starfish from the Fromia genus commonly available.

  1. Fromia milleporella, The Red Starfish or Sea Star
  2. Fromia indica, India Starfish
  3. Fromia monilis, Red Tile Starfish

Linckia

Blue Linckia starfish on aquarium glass
The Blue Linckia starfish is reef safe, very popular, but unfortunately not hardy

There are two extremely popular reef safe starfish species in the Linckia genus, the Red Linckia and the Blue Linckia. They are vibrantly colored and look like they are made out of Play Doh, which is perhaps the source for the great appeal of these echinoderms.

Sand Sifting

 

Last but not least, the humble sand-sifting starfish is the #1 Best Reef Safe Starfish on the list. They need a deep sand bed and are very active at moving about that sand bed in search of food.

Incompatibilities with the Starfish on this list

Pufferfish, Triggerfish and certain shrimp species are known starfish predators, so it is best not to keep any of the sea stars on this list with:

Or any other saltwater fish or invertebrate that considers them to be a natural food source.

What to read next

Here are a few other invertebrate-focused articles that you should check out:

References

Calfo, Anthony. Invertebrates: An Essential Guide to Selection, Care and Compatibility. Reading Trees (2003).

Shimek, Ronald L. A PocketExpert Guide to Marine Invertebrates: 500+ Essential-to-Know Aquarium Species. TFH Publications (2005).

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