The sea cucumbers are long-bodied echinoderms with the mouth at or near one end and the anus at or near the other. Because of their elongation along the oral-aboral plane, they lie on their sides rather than on the oral surface. In nearly all sea cucumbers the skeleton is reduced to microscopic ossicles imbedded in the leathery skin. Sea cucumbers have no arms, but tube feet around the mouth have been modified to form a circle of 10 to 30 tentacles of varying lengths and shapes that function in gathering food particles from the ocean bottom. The gut of the sea cucumber terminates in a chamber called the cloaca that opens into the anus. Two unique structures called respiratory trees, found in most sea cucumbers, also terminate in the cloaca. These are systems of highly branched tubes, one on either side of the body. The animal pumps water into the respiratory trees by contracting the cloaca, and oxygen diffuses through from the walls of the trees into the fluid of the body cavity. The madreporite in most sea cucumbers opens into the body cavity rather than to the outside and receives its fluid from the cavity. In a few sea cucumber species there is a large mass of tubules at the base of the respiratory tree that can be shot out of the anus if the animal is irritated. The extruded tubules, which may engulf and incapacitate an intruder, break off; they are then regenerated by the sea cucumber. In other species the respiratory trees, gonads, and part of the digestive tract are shot out through the anus; this evisceration is followed by regeneration of the lost organs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.