Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Has No Legs And The Most Amazing Feet Ever?

This starfish photo is by Mike Murphy at Wikimedia.
We often think of echinoderms, like starfish, sand dollars, and sea urchins, as static ocean decorations. But if you watch them for long enough (or on fast-forward if you lack the patience) you will find that they have exciting motile lives. They hunt, they flee predators, and they mate. But how do they get around without any legs to stand on? Their secret is tube feet.

If you look at the underbelly of these critters, you will see lots and lots of little tubes with suction cups on the ends. These are the tube feet. Tube feet work through hydraulic pressure, the pressure created when incompressible fluids are pushed around. Tube feet extend when a muscular bulb at the top of the foot (called an ampulla) contracts, forcing water down the length of the tube. As the tube foot extends, it swings like a pendulum and then lands and plants itself on the surface. If the surface is smooth, muscles can contract causing the cup-shaped tip to form a vacuum, sticking the foot to the surface. When the ampulla relaxes, the tube foot retracts. To get around, the animal contracts and releases these ampullae in waves, causing the tube feet to extend and retract in a coordinated way that moves the animal in a particular direction (albeit very slowly). They can also use their tube feet in a coordinated way to manipulate objects, like food items.

If you take a close look at this Pycnopodia helianthoides, you can
see the structure of its tube feet. Photo by Stickpen at Wikimedia.

But tube feet aren’t just for movement! They can also be used for breathing, smelling, tasting, and even seeing! These abilities relate to the structure of the membrane in the tube feet. Echinoderms are slow moving and have a low metabolism, so they can get away with taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide at low rates. The membranes in the tube feet are permeable to both of these gasses, and thus play an important role in respiration in these species. Additionally, tube feet often have chemoreceptors (receptors sensitive to smell and taste chemicals) and photoreceptors (receptors sensitive to light). It is largely through their tube feet that echinoderms perceive their world.

Echinoderm tube feet are far simpler than our own feet, with fewer muscles, no bones, and no toenails to trim. Yet their feet can look out for predator shadows, grab and taste prey and walk up walls. Sometimes, simplicity is just cooler than complexity.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Lesser, M., Carleton, K., Bottger, S., Barry, T., & Walker, C. (2011). Sea urchin tube feet are photosensory organs that express a rhabdomeric-like opsin and PAX6 Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278 (1723), 3371-3379 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0336

2. Santos, R. (2005). Adhesion of echinoderm tube feet to rough surfaces Journal of Experimental Biology, 208 (13), 2555-2567 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.01683

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