Superphylum Deuterostomia

Classes of Echinoderms

This phylum is divided into five extant classes: Asteroidea (sea stars), Ophiuroidea (brittle stars), Echinoidea (sea urchins and sand dollars), Crinoidea (sea lilies or feather stars), and Holothuroidea (sea cucumbers) (Figure).

The most well-known echinoderms are members of class Asteroidea, or sea stars. They come in a large variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, with more than 1,800 species known so far. The key characteristic of sea stars that distinguishes them from other echinoderm classes includes thick arms that extend from a central disk from which various body organs branch into the arms. At the end of each arm are simple eye spots and tentacles that serve as touch receptors. Sea stars use their rows of tube feet not only for gripping surfaces but also for grasping prey. Most sea stars are carnivores and their major prey are in the phylum Mollusca. By manipulating its tube feet, a sea star can open molluscan shells. Sea stars have two stomachs, one of which can protrude through their mouths and secrete digestive juices into or onto prey, even before ingestion. A sea star eating a clam can partially open the shell, and then evert its stomach into the shell, introducing digestive enzymes into the interior of the mollusk. This process can both weaken the strong adductor (closing) muscles of a bivalve and begin the process of digestion.

Link to Learning

Explore the sea star’s body plan up close, watch one move across the sea floor, and see it devour a mussel.

Brittle stars belong to the class Ophiuroidea ("snake-tails"). Unlike sea stars, which have plump arms, brittle stars have long, thin, flexible arms that are sharply demarcated from the central disk. Brittle stars move by lashing out their arms or wrapping them around objects and pulling themselves forward. Their arms are also used for grasping prey. The water vascular system in ophiuroids is not used for locomotion.

Sea urchins and sand dollars are examples of Echinoidea ("prickly"). These echinoderms do not have arms, but are hemispherical or flattened with five rows of tube feet that extend through five rows of pores in a continuous internal shell called a test. Their tube feet are used to keep the body surface clean. Skeletal plates around the mouth are organized into a complex multipart feeding structure called "Aristotle's lantern." Most echinoids graze on algae, but some are suspension feeders, and others may feed on small animals or organic detritus—the fragmentary remains of plants or animals.

Sea lilies and feather stars are examples of Crinoidea. Sea lilies are sessile, with the body attached to a stalk, but the feather stars can actively move about using leglike cirri that emerge from the aboral surface. Both types of crinoid are suspension feeders, collecting small food organisms along the ambulacral grooves of their feather-like arms. The "feathers" consisted of branched arms lined with tube feet. The tube feet are used to move captured food toward the mouth. There are only about 600 extant species of crinoids, but they were far more numerous and abundant in ancient oceans. Many crinoids are deep-water species, but feather stars typically inhabit shallow areas, especially in substropical and tropical waters.

Sea cucumbers of class Holothuroidea exhibit an extended oral-aboral axis. These are the only echinoderms that demonstrate “functional” bilateral symmetry as adults, because the extended oral-aboral axis compels the animal to lie horizontally rather than stand vertically. The tube feet are reduced or absent, except on the side on which the animal lies. They have a single gonad and the digestive tract is more typical of a bilaterally symmetrical animal. A pair of gill-like structures called respiratory trees branch from the posterior gut; muscles around the cloaca pump water in and out of these trees. There are clusters of tentacles around the mouth. Some sea cucumbers feed on detritus, while others are suspension feeders, sifting out small organisms with their oral tentacles. Some species of sea cucumbers are unique among the echinoderms in that cells containing hemoglobin circulate in the coelomic fluid, the water vascular system and/or the hemal system.

The sea star in photo a is red and white, with a thick squat body and protruding spikes. The brittle star in part b is brown with a flat, pentagon-shaped body. Thin striped legs extend from each point of the pentagon. Photo c shows a sea urchin with a round, black body and very long, thin, black spines. Photo d shows a sea lily that has appendages resembling branches of a spruce tree. Photo e shows a log-shaped sea cucumber with spikes extending from its body.
Classes of echinoderms. Different members of Echinodermata include the (a) sea star of class Asteroidea, (b) the brittle star of class Ophiuroidea, (c) the sea urchins of class Echinoidea, (d) the sea lilies belonging to class Crinoidea, and (e) sea cucumbers, representing class Holothuroidea. (credit a: modification of work by Adrian Pingstone; credit b: modification of work by Joshua Ganderson; credit c: modification of work by Samuel Chow; credit d: modification of work by Sarah Depper; credit e: modification of work by Ed Bierman)