The Great Barrier Reef is home to over eight-hundred species of echinoderms, and among those, the most recognizable are star fish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers. To many, they may seem simply as marine organisms of little importance, but they serve a much bigger purpose. Without sand dollars and sea cucumbers, oxygen would not be as reachable at the bottom of the ocean floor for the organisms that reside there and depend on it. Species like worms, snails, crabs, and many parasites alike depend on the habitat created by sea cucumbers. On the other hand, echinoderms, like star fish, keep algae from over growing on coral reefs, allowing the coral to filter feed easily. Not only do echinoderms play an important role in the ocean ecosystem, but they are a key part of the ocean food chain.
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Echinoderms such as star fish and sea cucumbers play major roles in the ocean’s food chain. Many ocean species such as the pear fish depend on echinoderms as part of their staple food diet and protection. Pearl fish, specifically, have developed a symbiotic relationship with sea cucumbers, in which they depend on them for shelter from their predators, by hiding in the sea cucumber’s cloaca. They also gain their food from the nutrients passing in and out of the sea cucumber’s anus, helping them to further develop into their adult stage.
Sea cucumbers are scavengers, meaning they consume plankton and other matter found in the sea, and feed on the debris from the benthic layer. Sea urchins and starfish are grazers who mainly consume the algae on corals and rocks. Due to the overgrowth of seaweed, entire reefs have been destroyed; this has been studied by scientists, and the cause of this mass destruction has been attributed to the extinction of large quantities of echinoderms, proving the significance of echinoderms in the environment.
Echinoderms: Purpose Economically
Not only are echinoderms of great importance to the environment, but they are also very important economically. One example of this is the use of them in farming. Echinoderms possess hard skeletons, which are used by farmers as a source of lime in areas where limestone is not accessible. Lime is very useful; it is added to soil in order to help plants gather more nutrients. Lime reduces acidity in the soil improving fertility and growth. Nearly four-thousand tons of echinoderms are utilized for this purpose each year.
Along with farming, echinoderms can also be used as a food source for humans. Echinoderms are actually considered delicacies in certain countries. They are eaten mostly in France, Japan, Peru, and Spain, but are sometimes consumed in the U.S. About fifty-thousand tons of echinoderms are caught for food each year. They are eaten frequently in some southeastern Asian countries. For example, in China, they are utilized as a base for various soups and stews. Also, both the male and female reproductive organs of sea urchins are consumed; the taste is said to be a mix between seafood and fruit.
The use of echinoderms in medicine is perhaps the most significant. Echinoderms are used quite frequently in medicine and medical research. Sea cucumbers are among the most prominent in this practice. Sea cucumbers and their extracts have especially gained interest within the past ten years due to their anti-inflammatory functions and possible health benefits. The extracts are presently being studied for their said anti-inflammatory properties and for cancer prevention and treatment. According to the article, “Sea Cucumbers Metabolites as Potent Anti-Cancer Agents”: “Sea cucumbers consist of vitamins, minerals, cerebrocides, peptides, and lectins, and also contain unique molecules, such as sulfated polysaccharides, 12-methyltetradecanoic acid (12-MTA), philinopside E, triterpene glycoside compounds, glycosaminoglycan, and chondroitin sulfates” (Naveena B. Janakiram et al). In ample amounts, these compounds are known to possess anti-inflammatory and anti-tumoral properties. Recent studies have suggested that certain concentrations of sea cucumber extracts could potentially shrink tumor cells.
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In our research we have found that the importance of echinoderms is not limited to their own ecosystem and have equal significance to the human species. We feel that as a society we do not realize how such small components of life serve such great purpose the environment and to our daily lives. If we gave more importance to learning about the earth’s different ecosystems and how they all work together, we could save so many sea creatures and their environments.
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