A Norwegian Deep Water Starfish
By Rebecca O’Neill
Description of specimen
The entry in the Natural History Museum acquisition register reads: “1879:350 A collection of marine animals from the coast of Norway. Purchased from Herr. P. Chr. Asbjornsen”
The specimen consists of several parts of a starfish preserved in alcohol and mounted on glass for exhibition. In life, this starfish, Brisinga endecacnemos Asbjørnsen, 1856, has the capacity to shed its limbs when attacked, as a defence mechanism. Thus the specimen does not appear to be “whole”. Just one limb is attached to the central medallion and there is one separated limb mounted beside it. These starfish are usually a bright coral red or orange in colour, but due to its preservation in alcohol the starfish now appears to be white. This is due to the bleaching effect that alcohol has on tissues over long periods of time.
How did it end up in the Museum?
Asbjørnsen’s collection of marine animals was purchased by the museum when it was still under the auspices of the Royal Dublin Society in the 1870s. At this time the collections were being added to considerably with an effort to have representative specimens from all around the world. This particular collection was mostly from a survey of Hardangerfjord conducted by Peter C. Asbjørnsen in the 1850s and represented one of the first comprehensive studies of an area of the Norwegian fjords.
What does its Latin name tell us?
The scientific name of this specimen tells us two interesting things about the species it belongs to. Firstly, it was Asbjørnsen himself that first discovered and named this species of starfish, hence his name appearing after the full scientific name: Brisinga endecacnemos Asbjørnsen, 1856.
Secondly, the name that he chose reflects the fact that Asbjørnsen is better known in Norway for his work on Norwegian folktales. The name he chose for the genus, Brisinga, is that of a piece of jewellery from Norse mythology which belonged to the goddess Freya that is associated with amber, a mineral of the same colour as the starfish.
Why is it an important part of our collection?
At the time that Asbjørnsen collected this starfish at 100-200 fathoms (180 to 360 meters under the water surface) it was widely believed that no animals could exist at these depths. This starfish showed many similarities to fossil starfish discovered during the nineteenth century and further study helped in the understanding of the evolution of starfish. These starfish, along with others very similar, were found consequently in Irish waters during marine surveys in the nineteenth century.
This specimen is no longer on public display, however a comprehensive display of Irish starfish can be viewed in the Irish Fauna exhibition on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum. Included in the exhibition are specimens in alcohol and dried specimens, which will illustrate how the alcohol preservation can alter the specimen’s colour over time. They are white rather than the colourful animals seen when caught alive.
You can also read more here:
Lie, Thore (2008) “The Introduction, Interpretation and Dissemination of Darwinism in Norway during the period 1860-90” in Engels, Eve-Marie (eds) The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe: The Reception of British Authors in Europe, Volume 1, London: Continuum International Publishing Group