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Sea lilies evolved escape strategy from predators over 200 million years

With their feathery arms and long stalks, sea lilies look like their land-based namesakes. But unlike the lilies of the land, sea lilies are able to pick up and move. Over 200 million years of being eaten by sea urchins they have evolved escape strategies, including pulling themselves out of reach along the ocean floor. The...

With their feathery arms and long stalks, sea lilies look like their land-based namesakes. But unlike the lilies of the land, sea lilies are able to pick up and move. Over 200 million years of being eaten by sea urchins they have evolved escape strategies, including pulling themselves out of reach along the ocean floor.


The oral side of a sea urchin with the Aristotle’s lantern (mouth structure) and a piece of crinoid arm that it is consuming.

Photo by F. J. Gahn

Scientists have known for some years that sea lilies are able to move away from urchins. Now a new study by University of Michigan paleontologist Tomasz Baumiller and colleagues, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, finds that urchins have been preying on sea lilies–marine animals known as crinoids–for more than 200 million years.

NGS-Grant-logo.jpgPredation over so much time drove the sea lily to develop the ability to escape by creeping along the ocean floor, according to the research, which was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Nature abounds with examples of evolutionary arms races. Certain marine snails, for example, evolved thick shells and spines to avoid be eaten, but crabs and fish foiled the snails by developing shell-crushing claws and jaws,” the University of Michigan said in a news statement about the paper.


Feather star on a coral from Palau.

Photo by F. J. Gahn

Baumiller’s study builds on previous research on present-day sea lilies and urchins, tracing the evolutionary arms race between them way back in time.

“With their long stalks and feathery arms, sea lilies look a lot like their garden-variety namesakes. Perhaps because of that resemblance, scientists long had thought that sea lilies stayed rooted instead of moving around like their stalkless relatives, the feather stars,” U-M said.


Photo of sea lily by F. J. Gahn

“But in the 1980s, Baumiller and collaborator Charles Messing of Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida, observed sea lilies shedding the ends of their stalks to release themselves from their anchor points and using their feathery arms to crawl away, dragging their stalks behind them.

“Then, while going through hundreds of hours of video shot during submersible dives, the two researchers came across footage that offered an explanation for why sea lilies might get up and go. The videos showed sea urchins lurking in gardens of sea lilies, some of which appeared to be creeping away from the predators.”

In some photos, the sea floor around the urchins was littered with sea lily arms, “like table scraps left from a feast,” U-M said.

“Further studies by Baumiller, Messing and Rich Mooi of the California Academy of Sciences suggested that sea urchins don’t simply scavenge bits of dead sea lilies that they find on the ocean floor; they bite pieces right off their prey, giving sea lilies plenty of reason to shed their stalk ends like lizards’ tails and scoot away.”

When those findings were announced in 2005, the researchers said the next step was to scrutinize fossil crinoids for clues to how and when sea lilies developed the ability to shed their stalk ends and move around.

A stalked crinoid, Neocrinus decorus.

Photo by C. G. Messing

In the new research being reported in PNAS, that’s what they, along with Forest Gahn of Brigham Young University and Polish collaborators Mariusz Salamon and Przemyslaw Gorzelak, have done.

“First, the researchers put sea urchins into a tank with detached crinoid arms, pieces of crinoid stalks and arms, and live crinoids. Every urchin that was given the opportunity at least nibbled on crinoids, and one even ate a whole feather star. This experiment not only confirmed that urchins prey on crinoids, but it also revealed that crinoid parts that pass undigested through urchins bear characteristic scratches and pits that match the size and shape of the teeth in the urchin’s ‘mouth,'” the University of Michigan said.

The researchers looked for the same kinds of bite marks on more than 2,500 crinoid stalk fossils from Poland, dating back to the middle of the Triassic period, some 225 million years ago. More than 500 of the fossils had the same bite marks, they found.


A sea urchin with a piece of crinoid stalk (the white) in its jaws.

Photo by F. J. Gahn

The findings suggest that the development of motility in crinoids, that in some groups included swimming and floating, were stimulated by their interactions with predators, the researchers said.

The time frame is significant, too, said Baumiller, professor of geological sciences and a curator at the U-M Museum of Paleontology.

“Some of the best examples of the effects of escalating interactions between predators and prey come from something called the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (MMR), a dramatic increase in the diversity of predators and their prey that started during the late Mesozoic Era, about 150 million years ago. But the new study suggests that, at least for crinoids and their predators, the arms race began even earlier,” U-M said.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, and the Foundation for Polish Science.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn