Superphylum Deuterostomia

Phylum Echinodermata

Echinodermata are named after their “prickly skin” (from the Greek “echinos” meaning “prickly” and “dermos” meaning “skin”). This phylum is a collection of about 7,000 described living species of exclusively marine, bottom-dwelling organisms. Sea stars (Figure), sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and brittle stars are all examples of echinoderms.

Morphology and Anatomy

Despite the adaptive value of bilaterality for most free-living cephalized animals, adult echinoderms exhibit pentaradial symmetry (with “arms” typically arrayed in multiples of five around a central axis). Echinoderms have an endoskeleton made of calcareous ossicles (small bony plates), covered by the epidermis. For this reason, it is an endoskeleton like our own, not an exoskeleton like that of arthropods. The ossicles may be fused together, embedded separately in the connective tissue of the dermis, or be reduced to minute spicules of bone as in sea cucumbers. The spines for which the echinoderms are named are connected to some of the plates. The spines may be moved by small muscles, but they can also be locked into place for defense. In some species, the spines are surrounded by tiny stalked claws called pedicellaria, which help keep the animal's surface clean of debris, protect papulae used in respiration, and sometimes aid in food capture.

The endoskeleton is produced by dermal cells, which also produce several kinds of pigments, imparting vivid colors to these animals. In sea stars, fingerlike projections (papillae) of dermal tissue extend through the endoskeleton and function as gills. Some cells are glandular, and may produce toxins. Each arm or section of the animal contains several different structures: for example, digestive glands, gonads, and the tube feet that are unique to the echinoderms. In echinoderms like sea stars, every arm bears two rows of tube feet on the oral side, running along an external ambulacral groove. These tube feet assist in locomotion, feeding, and chemical sensations, as well as serve to attach some species to the substratum.

The illustration shows a sea star, which has a mouth on the bottom and an anus on top, both in the middle of the star. The disk-shaped stomach is sandwiched between the mouth and anus. Two tubes radiate from the stomach to each arm, and many small digestive glands connect to these tubes. Beneath the stomach is a central ring canal that also connects to tubes that extend into each arm. Tube feet are attached to these tubes. Each tube foot resembles a medicine dropper, with a bulb-shaped ampulla at the top and an extension called a podium at the bottom. The bottom of the podium protrudes from the bottom of the starfish. There are many podia along the length of the arm, which allow the sea star to latch onto objects and walk. A structure called a madreporite connects to the central ring, and protrudes from the upper surface of the sea star, next to the anus.
Anatomy of a sea star. This diagram of a sea star shows the pentaradial pattern typical of adult echinoderms, and the water vascular system that is their defining characteristic.

Water Vascular and Hemal Systems

Echinoderms have a unique ambulacral (water vascular) system, derived from part of the coelom, or “body cavity.” The water vascular system consists of a central ring canal and radial canals that extend along each arm. Each radial canal is connected to a double row of tube feet, which project through holes in the endoskeleton, and function as tactile and ambulatory structures. These tube feet can extend or retract based on the volume of water present in the system of that arm, allowing the animal to move and also allowing it to capture prey with their suckerlike action. Individual tube feet are controlled by bulblike ampullae. Seawater enters the system through an aboral madreporite (opposite the oral area where the mouth is located) and passes to the ring canal through a short stone canal. Water circulating through these structures facilitates gaseous exchange and provides a hydrostatic source for locomotion and prey manipulation. A hemal system, consisting of oral, gastric, and aboral rings, as well as other vessels running roughly parallel to the water vascular system, circulates nutrients. Transport of nutrients and gases is shared by the water vascular and hemal systems in addition to the visceral body cavity that surrounds the major organs.

Nervous System

The nervous system in these animals is a relatively simple, comprising a circumoral nerve ring at the center and five radial nerves extending outward along the arms. In addition, several networks of nerves are located in different parts of the body. However, structures analogous to a brain or large ganglia are not present in these animals. Depending on the group, echinoderms may have well-developed sensory organs for touch and chemoreception (e.g., within the tube feet and on tentacles at the tips of the arms), as well as photoreceptors and statocysts.

Digestive and Excretory Systems

A mouth, located on the oral (ventral) side, opens through a short esophagus to a large, baglike stomach. The so-called “cardiac” stomach can be everted through the mouth during feeding (for example, when a starfish everts its stomach into a bivalve prey item to digest the animal—alive—within its own shell!) There are masses of digestive glands (pyloric caeca) in each arm, running dorsally along the arms and overlying the reproductive glands below them. After passing through the pyloric caeca in each arm, the digested food is channeled to a small anus, if one exists.

Podocytes—cells specialized for ultrafiltration of bodily fluids—are present near the center of the echinoderm disc, at the junction of the water vascular and hemal systems. These podocytes are connected by an internal system of canals to the madreporite, where water enters the stone canal. The adult echinoderm typically has a spacious and fluid-filled coelom. Cilia aid in circulating the fluid within the body cavity, and lead to the fluid-filled papulae, where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place, as well as the secretion of nitrogenous waste such as ammonia, by diffusion.


Echinoderms are dioecious, but males and females are indistinguishable apart from their gametes. Males and females release their gametes into water at the same time and fertilization is external. The early larval stages of all echinoderms (e.g., the bipinnaria of asteroid echinoderms such as sea stars) have bilateral symmetry, although each class of echinoderms has its own larval form. The radially symmetrical adult forms from a cluster of cells in the larva. Sea stars, brittle stars, and sea cucumbers may also reproduce asexually by fragmentation, as well as regenerate body parts lost in trauma, even when over 75 percent of their body mass is lost!

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