How the sea cucumber lost its armour

By Imran Rahman, Research Fellow

You have probably heard of sea cucumbers. If you’re lucky, you might have seen one, if not in the wild, then perhaps in a nature documentary like Blue Planet or the children’s cartoon Octonauts. If you’re less lucky, you might have eaten one – they are most commonly described as slippery and bland in taste!

Despite their appearance, sea cucumbers are actually marine animals most closely related to sea urchins, rather than to worms or slugs. Over the past century palaeontologists have uncovered a range of ancient fossil relatives of modern sea cucumbers that allow us to piece together the story of how they evolved from armoured ‘tanks’ into the naked slug-like forms we see today. One such fossil is described in a new paper by my colleagues and I, just published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The fossil in question is 430-million-years-old, and it comes from a site of exceptionally-preserved fossils in England called the Herefordshire Lagerstätte. Herefordshire has produced many exciting discoveries over the years, from prehistoric parasites to an ancient ‘kite runner’. The new fossil is the first of its kind from this deposit.

Like all fossils from Herefordshire, the specimen was preserved in an egg-shaped nodule of rock. Because the rock has the same chemical composition as the fossil, it could not be studied with modern imaging methods such as CT scanning. Instead, it had to be studied by painstakingly grinding away the fossil, a few hundredths of a millimetre as a time, with photographs taken of each exposed surface using a digital camera. This allowed us to build up a dataset of hundreds of slice images through the fossil, which were digitally reconstructed as a 3-D ‘virtual fossil’ on a computer.

The 3D computer reconstruction revealed a very peculiar animal, about 3 cm wide, with 45 tentacle-like ‘tube feet’ and a large mouth surrounded by five teeth. The animal had a skeleton made up of numerous hard plates, which were composed of the mineral calcite. After studying this fossil and comparing it to other similar ones from the same time period, we were able to identify it as a species new to science. We named the species Sollasina cthulhu, for its resemblance to monsters from the Cthulhu universe created by author H.P. Lovecraft.

One of the most useful things about our 3D computer reconstruction was that it enabled us to study the inner features of the fossil, as well as the parts visible on the outer surface. This revealed internal soft parts that had never previously been described in this group of fossils. In particular, it allowed us to see an internal ring-like structure within the main body cavity.

3D reconstruction of Sollasina cthulhu. Left-hand image shows part of lower surface. Right-hand image shows same view with outer surface partly transparent to reveal inner ring (in red). Credit: Imran Rahman, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

We interpreted this inner ring as part of the water vascular system – the system of fluid-filled canals used for feeding and movement in modern sea cucumbers and their relatives, such as sea urchins and starfish. In life, the ring was connected to the large tube feet, which were filled with seawater. Most of these tube feet were used for crawling over the seafloor, with those nearest the mouth used for capturing food. The teeth could cut and crush food items, which were then eaten by the animal.

Life reconstruction of Sollasina cthulhu. Credit: Elissa Martin, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

To work out the evolutionary relationships of Sollasina cthulhu, we assembled a list of characteristics for various fossil and modern sea cucumbers and sea urchins. We analysed this matrix using several computational methods to determine how these different animals were related to one another. The results confirmed that Sollasina cthulhu and closely-related forms were ancient relatives of modern sea cucumbers. This allowed us to reconstruct the early evolution of sea cucumbers, back to their shared common ancestor with sea urchins, over 450 million years ago. Our study demonstrates this was a story of loss, with fossil sea cucumbers becoming progressively less armoured as they evolved into modern forms.

This discovery has greatly improved our understanding of sea cucumber evolution, but several questions remain. One intriguing question is when and how did sea cucumbers lose their teeth, and did these evolve into any features seen in living sea cucumbers? Future study of existing and new fossil sea cucumbers and sea urchins will help to answer this and other intriguing questions.