If you're lucky enough to swim in the warm, shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific region, you may encounter one of the most charming of all the sea stars, the Protoeaster nodosus. These beauties are commonly known as Horned Sea Stars or, my personal favorite, Chocolate Chip Sea Stars.

They are part of the class Asteroidea (starfish or sea stars) one of the most diverse groups within the phylum Echinodermata and have a lengthy lineage in the fossil record stretching all the way back to the Triassic. These echinoderms make a living on near-shore sandy bottoms or lurk in the sea grass meadows of some of our most beautiful waters.

Chocolate Chip Sea Stars live in the waters off the Philippine Sea, off the coast of Australia and New Guinea. Their range extends to the Marshall Islands through central and southeastern Polynesia, past Easter Island and all the way up to Hawaii. Pretty much pick any of the top contenders for a warm, tropical vacation and they've beat you to it

This species of sea star have black rows of "horns" or "spines" meant to scare off predators. A noble deterrent for his fishy friends but I find this signature decoration rather fetching. These fellows like to graze on choice corals and sponges. They are also happy to make a meal of snails and bitter sea urchin when these ambrosial treats are presented. And they are social, both to mate, gathering in groups to aid in fertilization and acting as soft cover for shrimp, wee brittle stars and juvenile leatherjackets or filefish who tuck in and enjoy the protective cover of those dark nodes.