Image Credit: James St. John (CC License)
If you think starfish aren’t cute, you haven’t seen a chocolate chip starfish yet. We will talk about how they got their moniker later, but let me tell you, these are some of the most stunning starfish varieties that you’ll come across. Marine enthusiasts love them.
In addition to their striking appearance, chocolate chip starfish are easy to care for and can be found both online and offline. But unfortunately, dried and shrivelled bodies of these unique animals are mostly sold as tourist souvenirs in their native regions of Indonesia and the Solomon Islands.
In this care guide, you will find everything you need to know about caring for these little marvels, from feeding the proper diet and creating a suitable habitat to the dos and don’ts of successfully raising them.
Chocolate Chip Starfish At Glance
|Name||Chocolate Chip Starfish|
|Other Names||Horned Sea Star, Horned Starfish, Nodular Sea Star|
|Scientific Name||Protoreaster nodosus|
|Origin||Solomon Islands, Indonesia|
|Maximum Size||Up to 15 inches|
|Colors||Dark brown with hints of blue, yellow, red, white and light tan|
|Lifespan||Up To 20 Years|
|Minimum Tank Size||30 Gallons|
Note: This guide is for the Protoreaster nodosus – not to be confused with the nidorellia armata, also known as chocolate chip starfish, found in warmer climates of the eastern pacific region.
Nidorellia armata is an entirely different species found in the Gulf of California, Galapagos Islands, and Peru.
Now, let’s begin our care guide!
Chocolate Chip Sea Star is an instantly recognizable ornamental sea star that boasts an instant appeal. It’s not difficult to imagine rich brown tubercles (protrusions) that dot the surface of the sea star as choco chips on top of a tasty cookie.
Although they look like a tasty dessert, they are animals. These marine invertebrates belong to the Echinoderm Phylum.
And do you know the ‘word’ echinoderm comes from the Greek word meaning hedgehog skin? Makes sense!
In the wild, these starfish are primarily found in warm, shallow waters of the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Red Sea.
Usually found in lagoons, these invertebrates enjoy shallow, sandy habitats. But they are also found in reef areas as deep as 100 feet, in addition to muddy, grassy areas.
And it means that they can pretty much adapt to any reef environment you could throw at it.
Even though chocolate chip starfish are farmed extensively for their intricate skeletal patterns to be sold as souvenirs, they are listed as “Not Evaluated” on the IUCN Red List.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Reef Compatibility
Chocolate chip sea star is a highly sought-after addition to FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rocks) tanks. However, they are not reef-compatible by any chance.
As adults, these invertebrates will spare no chance to munch on soft corals, tubeworms, clams, sponges, and even other starfish.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Lifespan
Chocolate chip starfish can easily live for around 20 years in the wild. However, it’s a different story in captivity.
In home aquariums, the average lifespan for these animals ranges from around 5 to 7 years. Of course, with proper care and diet, they may make it past a decade – but still, it’s a rare feat to achieve.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Cost
Chocolate chip starfish cost anywhere between $12-20 on average. The cost varies slightly depending on its size.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Appearance
Chocolate chip starfish look like a choco chip cookie at first glance. And these chips are actually horns, regularly arranged along the arms and central disk, used for protection.
These dark knobs are supposed to give these animals a fierce look and thus successfully deter predators. But I don’t know how effective it is since tiny hermit crabs pick the horns off, like kids pick choco chips out of a cookie, all the time.
Like most horned sea stars, chocolate chip starfish have five arms that taper at the ends. But there are often anomalies like a four or six-armed specimen.
Chocolate chip starfish generally have a star-shaped calcified body with penta-radial symmetry. The outer body includes a central disk and stout arms.
By the way, do you know that no two starfish look the same, much like tiger or zebra stripes?
Besides the light tan color that makes them look like legit cookie dough, chocolate chip starfish also come in shades of red, brown, yellow, white, and even blue.
Both body and arms are short and plump. And they’re covered with horn-shaped spines that are pretty pointy to begin with but will wear down and become blunter over time.
If you observe the underside of the chocolate chip starfish, you can see rows of tube feet that walk down the chocolate chip’s arms. These tubes are arranged in rows on each arm and extend to the five endpoints.
They are either pale and transparent or pink and purple.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Size
Chocolate chip starfish grow fairly large. In captivity, they can reach a maximum length of up to 15 inches.
The central disk grows about 5 inches, while the arms measure 15 inches.
Also, the entire body of the starfish can attain a diameter of up to 16 inches, but it’s more common to see fully grown specimens reach between 8 to 10 inches in diameter in captivity.
The average purchase size for small specimens is 2 to 3 inches, medium-sized specimens is 3 to 4 inches, and large specimens is 4 to 6 inches.
In captivity, water conditions and their diet play pivotal roles in determining their growth rate.
According to this study, they grow at 0.8-1.2 inches (2-3 cm) per year when young. But once they reach around 3 inches long (7-8 cm), the growth rate slows down to 0.4 inches (1 cm) per year.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Male VS Female
There’s no easy way to tell male and female chocolate chip starfish apart. They practically look the same. Therefore, breeding them is quite a challenge.
Water Parameters For Chocolate Chip Starfish
- pH: 8.1-8.4
- Water Hardness: 8-12 dKH
- Calcium: 380-430 PPM
- Specific Gravity: 1.021-1.025
- Lighting: Low to moderate
As hardy as chocolate chip starfish are, they’re incredibly intolerant of polluted water. They don’t react well to spikes in ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels.
Therefore, you should always ensure the parameters are safe for your starfish. We use and recommend using API’s Saltwater Master Kit to ensure everything is under safety limits.
Always opt for liquid-based tests instead of strip tests. Liquid-based tests are far more accurate and reliable than strip tests.
And since their vascular system mimics the water surrounding them, sudden changes in pH, oxygen, temperature, and salinity can negatively impact them.
Thus, you need to invest in sturdy equipment that can keep the parameters clean and stable at all times.
Minimum Recommended Tank Size For Chocolate Chip Starfish
The minimum recommended tank size for a single chocolate chip starship is 30 gallons. And that’s because they grow pretty big.
And as always, if possible, opt for a bigger tank. It will make life a lot easier for both you and the starfish.
With small tanks, you’ll have to deal with several issues like sudden temperature fluctuation, ammonia spike, and volatile parameters.
Substrate And Decor For Chocolate Chip Starfish
Chocolate chip starfish require a sandy substrate that should be at least several inches deep – we’re talking about 4 to 5 inches.
Since they’re not reef safe, you cannot decorate the tank with corals, anemones, and sponges. They can only be kept in FOWLR aquariums.
So, the only decorations you can keep are live rocks. Add plenty of them. And go for bigger ones as they love to affix themselves to live rocks.
Since these animals scavenge algae for their primary food source, your tank should also be able to grow algae sustainably.
Caring For Chocolate Chip Starfish
As with most marine creatures, exposure to air can be downright fatal for chocolate chip starfish. If air bubbles make their way into the vascular system, they can paralyze the starfish or even kill it.
If you’re going to transfer them to a new environment, you should use the drip acclimatization method over several hours before placing them in their new tank.
Skipping acclimatization is the number one reason starfish die in a few days when exposed to a new environment.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Temperament And Behavior
Chocolate chip starfish are peaceful species for the most part, but they’re also opportunistic carnivores. Unfortunately, their calm demeanor doesn’t stop them from preying on sessile animals like sponges and corals.
When first introduced to a new environment, they take their sweet time making themselves comfortable. Right after introducing the starfish to a new home environment, it will attach itself to a large live rock or side of the tank.
One notable behavior of these starfish is the way they eat. They extend their bellies out of their mouth and onto the food and then swiftly retract the stomach back in.
And by the way, they ingest food and eject waste through the same opening – the mouth.
Located on the side of the central disk is a small wart-like structure known as madreporite. They collect water for their vascular system by pumping water through the madreporite.
The vascular system also doubles as the starfish’s circulatory system, which functions as a respiratory system. Sorry if that sounded wordy!
Anyway, the point is that if an air bubble gets trapped in your chocolate chip starfish’s vascular system, it could lead to paralysis or even instant death. Luckily, these invertebrates can close this madreporite voluntarily to prevent air bubbles from getting trapped in the vascular system.
All that said, it’s imperative to avoid picking up your starfish and exposing it to air.
The starfish stays immobile for a good part of the day, sticking to live rock or the tank glass. But you may find it occasionally moving around on the sand bed every once in a while to graze on biofilm, detritus, and algae.
These invertebrates host commensal creatures like shrimps from the Periclimenes genus, juvenile filefish, and tiny brittle stars since these critters deem starfish to be a haven and a refuge to escape predators.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Tank Mates
Chocolate chip starfish should only be kept in big marine aquariums alongside mild-mannered fish. Since starfish are naturally slower at moving and reflexes than most fish, they should not be housed with predatory fish like puffers and triggerfish.
Here’s a list of fish and shrimps that can peacefully cohabitate with chocolate chip starfish:
- Yellow/blue damselfish
- Peppermint shrimp
- Red fire shrimp
- Camel shrimp
- Skunk cleaner shrimp
- Hermit crabs
Chocolate chip starfish are mainly compatible with most other fish or invertebrate species that don’t consider it a meal.
And here’s a list of fish creatures that pose a threat to your chocolate chip starfish:
- Harlequin shrimps
- Coral-banded shrimps
- Sally lightfoot crabs
- Arrow crabs
Chocolate chip starfish should never be paired with harlequin shrimp as these shrimps are carnivores who only eat starfish! Coral-banded shrimps are just as aggressive and strong enough to inflict harm on your starfish, too.
Similarly, sally lightfoot and arrow crabs have been reported to attempt often to devour starfish.
But the table turns when it comes to snails. Chocolate starfish may attempt to devour them – especially smaller ones.
Chocolate Chip Starfish Diet
Chocolate chip starfish are carnivores. But they will also occasionally snack on plant detritus and algae. In the wild, they devour tiny meiofauna – small benthic invertebrates that live in both freshwater and marine environments.
Although these starfish are adept scavengers that keep the tank clean and squeaky, you still need to fortify their diet with protein-rich food.
Interestingly, they also practice suspension-feeding – a practice of capturing and ingesting food particles that are suspended in the water column. They consume zooplankton, phytoplankton, detritus, and algae films using this technique.
Also, instead of just tossing food hoping that they eat it, try to spot-feed them as this will help make sure that they get the meal first before other opportunistic inhabitants.
You can even pick up the starfish and place it on top of the meal.
Here’s a list of food you can give chocolate chip starfish:
How Often Can You Feed Chocolate Chip Starfish?
Chocolate chip starfish are scavengers. Thus, they feed themselves for the most part if there’s food like algae naturally present in the tank.
But you can supplement their diet with meaty food twice every week.
How Do Chocolate Chip Starfish Eat?
Watching a chocolate chip starfish eat is so fascinating that I can observe their antics for hours. Like all starfish, they eat by projecting their stomachs outside of their bodies to grab food.
They cover the prey/food with their entire body since the mouth is located on the underside. The belly is pushed out, and the digestive juice covers the food. Cilia on the starfish then move the food towards the stomach and into the animal.
Here’s a cool video of chocolate chip starfish eating:
Breeding Chocolate Chip Starfish
Chocolate chip starfish can reproduce both sexually and asexually. However, it’s not recommended to breed them in captivity. For starters, we can not mimic the water depth required for breeding chocolate chip starfish as they breed in very deep waters.
Second, chocolate chip starfish breed during the full moon.
All in all, we cannot recreate the right salinity and temperature required for successful breeding. But there’s no harm in knowing how and when they breed, right?
Chocolate chip starfish reach sexual maturity when about 3 inches (8 cms) in diameter. They reach this milestone around their second or third birthday.
Like most of the starfish species, chocolate chip starfish are dioecious. It means that they have distinct male and female individuals. It’s a different story that we can’t really tell them apart.
Chocolate chip starfish can breed two ways: sexually and asexually.
Asexual reproduction usually happens when a predator rips off one of its arms. And on occasions when the ripped-off arm has some vital stuff within it, it can regenerate and form an entirely new starfish. The original starfish, too, can grow the arm back.
During sexual reproduction, male and female starfish respectively release egg and sperm into the water where the fertilization occurs. The fertilized eggs are about 0.2 mm in diameter and ride the current during their first month of life.
The floating eggs undergo several forms and look like a blob at some points during the developmental phase. Over time, they will undergo a metamorphosis where they finally take on the form of a typical five-point starfish shape.
The juvenile starfish then land on a safe, rocky area as they develop into mature adults. At this point, they primarily snack on algae.
Common Problems Associated With Chocolate Chip Starfish
Chocolate chip clownfish are particularly prone to bacterial infections, manifesting as unusual lesions and spots.
These infections can be cured using an iodine supplement or broad-spectrum antibiotic in a separate tank or container.
Another common problem chocolate chip starfish experience is curled back arms in unusual positions while sticking to the glass. They do so to get their hands on debris or algae film from the water column. It’s an indicator that the water quality is poor.
If you notice your starfish curling more often than usual, it’s high time you evaluate its environment and make necessary fixes.
Starfish are also prone to sustain bruises and cuts from live rocks. But the good thing is they can heal pretty fast owing to their regenerative abilities.
Chocolate chip starfish are stunning to look at. They’d definitely be the showstopper of the tank – a conversation starter. However, curating your tank to accommodate these animals happily can be a daunting task.
If you’re looking to create a beautiful reef biosphere, chocolate chip starfish may not be the right choice for you. They will readily snack on your prized coral or clam.
Also, if you plan to add hermit crabs or boxfish, you’ll once again want to skip chocolate chip starfish for the safety of both parties.
However, if you are on the lookout for unique sea creatures to add to your FOWLR aquarium, chocolate chip sea starfish can be a great addition.