What's the Point Of... A Sea Cucumber?
What’s the point of…
a sea cucumber?
Sometimes, when you’re out in the wild, you come across a creature: an annoying creature, a quiet creature, or a slow moving creature and you think… what’s the point? You’re on a hike and you get besieged by mosquitos. Soon, your arms are covered in itchy red blotches! What’s the point of a MOSQUITO? (More on that later!).
I mean, it’s kind of a rude question. I wouldn’t want someone to burst into my house while I’m on the couch in the middle of a great book or watching my favorite movie. Sometimes, we all need rest. Sometimes, we all take breaks! But then, you come across a creature and you think, what’s the point? You’re walking outside after a rain storm and you come across pink earthworms scattered along the sidewalk. What do earthworms DO anyway? What’s the point?
In the ocean, sometimes, you might wonder about a sea cucumber. Sea cucumbers are big blobs that lie on the ocean floor. You usually find them curled up near a nice coral cluster, trying to blend in and avoid predators. They are not particularly pretty or attractive. They don’t seem to do anything fantastic like hunting for prey or helping the ocean.
Well, as you might have guessed, our interconnectedness—humans, animals, plants—means that we all help one another, especially in a healthy ecosystem. Sea cucumbers have a really cool role to play. They are underwater vacuum cleaners. They’re frilly, speckled, chubby roombas of the ocean. Their unique role in the ocean is to filter out stuff that’s mucking up the sand and the water.
When they poop, they poop clean, filtered sand (a lot like that pretty, white sandy stuff you enjoy at the beach!). They don’t make sand. That’s the role of ocean waves pounding down rocks over the centuries and parrotfish eating, and… you guessed it… pooping out coral. That leads to the pretty white sand. But, sea cucumbers filter sand and water, just like a vacuum cleaner scoops up unwanted stuff from your floors.
There are over 1,000 species of sea cucumbers in the ocean. Of these, 377 species are “Threatened,” “Endangered” or “Vulnerable.” They have an important role to play in the ocean, so we need to take care of them, just as they take care of the ocean.
Fun Fact #1: Sea cucumbers are related to sea stars. They are both called echinoderms.
Fun Fact #2: A sea cucumber does NOT have a brain!
Fun Fact #3: Some sea cucumbers, when threatened, throw up their internal organs as a defense mechanism!
Oh and back to those cute, pink earthworms? They do much the same work on land, cleaning and processing our soil. So, say thank you to our vacuum cleaner friends for cleaner sand, cleaner water, and cleaner soil!
With a purpose!
Both of these photos were taken on the island of Saba. Photo credit: Liz Summit, 2018.