Have you ever looked at an echinoderm and thought: is that really an animal? Actually, maybe your first thought is – what the heck is an echinoderm, anyway? The group of animals known as Phylum Echinodermata includes such familiar creatures as star fish, brittle stars, sea urchins and the less familiar sea cucumbers and sea lilies. If you’ve ever spent time by the seashore or at an aquarium, you’ve probably been witness to one trait ubiquitous in this group: these guys move slowly! In fact, the apparently sedentary nature of echinoderms easily leads one to privately class these creatures with such “lower life forms” as plants.
Even scientists viewed these animals as a type of creature apart – at least until an unexpectedly useful piece of technology came along: that of time-lapse photography. Viewed in our own impatient time frame, echinoderms are painfully slow and their lives seem nothing short of boring. With their activities sped up to our own time, however, these ancient animals suddenly spring to life. Similar to birds or mammals at a kill, star fish can be seen to scramble as a group to a fallen meal; they will scurry hurriedly away in all directions when a higher predator arrives on the scene. And when meeting on the ocean floor, these curious, eyeless, headless animals will greet one another by gently touching limbs.
Of course, none of this intriguing social behaviour is observable when viewed through our own version of time. The starfish sitting on the beach appears to be little more than a colourful, interesting, decorative blob.
One of the most fascinating points of watching echinoderm life in fast forward is that our own perception of these animals changes dramatically, despite the fact that the animals themselves are acting just as they always do – we just didn’t know what that meant before. When perceived as motionless blobs, little interest can be mustered for either the existence of echinoderms in the present or their preservation in the future.
However, when our understanding grows and the lives of these creatures are revealed to us in a way that we both comprehend and relate to, our respect for their existence suddenly increases. With a track record including survival through five mass extinctions, and a current distribution throughout every ocean in the world – from the seashore to the depths of the ocean – these little marvels deserve our respect.
The echinoderm version of time reveals one hugely important lesson about our place in nature: there is so much understanding that we, with our limited perceptions and views of the world, can miss. Something as simple as time-lapse photography can transform our view of echinoderms from meaningless creatures to animals that we relate to and wish to preserve. Not every organism in this enormously bio-diverse world will have its nature advantageously revealed to us through a given technology. But if there is one fundamental change that we as humans can make to help preserve in this marvelously diverse world, it is this: we must acknowledge our lack of knowledge. Behind every species that we just don’t get, is a life that makes sense in its own habitat; one that fits just right into its own complex, larger ecosystem and one that is an essential puzzle piece in the biosphere that we all share.
Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.