Superphylum Deuterostomia

Phylum Echinodermata

Echinodermata are so named owing to their spiny skin (from the Greek “echinos” meaning “spiny” and “dermos” meaning “skin”), and this phylum is a collection of about 7,000 described living species. Echinodermata are exclusively marine organisms. Sea stars (Figure), sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and brittle stars are all examples of echinoderms. To date, no freshwater or terrestrial echinoderms are known.

Morphology and Anatomy

Adult echinoderms exhibit pentaradial symmetry and have a calcareous endoskeleton made of ossicles, although the early larval stages of all echinoderms have bilateral symmetry. The endoskeleton is developed by epidermal cells and may possess pigment cells, giving vivid colors to these animals, as well as cells laden with toxins. Gonads are present in each arm. In echinoderms like sea stars, every arm bears two rows of tube feet on the oral side. These tube feet help in attachment to the substratum. These animals possess a true coelom that is modified into a unique circulatory system called a water vascular system. An interesting feature of these animals is their power to regenerate, even when over 75 percent of their body mass is lost.

The illustration shows a sea star, which has a mouth on the bottom and an anus on top, both in the middle of the star. The disk-shaped stomach is sandwiched between the mouth and anus. Two tubes radiate from the stomach to each arm, and many small digestive glands connect to these tubes. Beneath the stomach is a central ring canal that also connects to tubes that extend into each arm. Tube feet are attached to these tubes. Each tube foot resembles a medicine dropper, with a bulb-shaped ampulla at the top and an extension called a podium at the bottom. The bottom of the podium protrudes from the bottom of the starfish. There are many podia along the length of the arm, which allow the sea star to latch onto objects and walk. A structure called a madreporite connects to the central ring, and protrudes from the upper surface of the sea star, next to the anus.
This diagram shows the anatomy of a sea star.

Water Vascular System

Echinoderms possess a unique ambulacral or water vascular system, consisting of a central ring canal and radial canals that extend along each arm. Water circulates through these structures and facilitates gaseous exchange as well as nutrition, predation, and locomotion. The water vascular system also projects from holes in the skeleton in the form of tube feet. These tube feet can expand or contract based on the volume of water present in the system of that arm. By using hydrostatic pressure, the animal can either protrude or retract the tube feet. Water enters the madreporite on the aboral side of the echinoderm. From there, it passes into the stone canal, which moves water into the ring canal. The ring canal connects the radial canals (there are five in a pentaradial animal), and the radial canals move water into the ampullae, which have tube feet through which the water moves. By moving water through the unique water vascular system, the echinoderm can move and force open mollusk shells during feeding.

Nervous System

The nervous system in these animals is a relatively simple structure with a nerve ring at the center and five radial nerves extending outward along the arms. Structures analogous to a brain or derived from fusion of ganglia are not present in these animals.

Excretory System

Podocytes, cells specialized for ultrafiltration of bodily fluids, are present near the center of echinoderms. These podocytes are connected by an internal system of canals to an opening called the madreporite.


Echinoderms are sexually dimorphic and release their eggs and sperm cells into water; fertilization is external. In some species, the larvae divide asexually and multiply before they reach sexual maturity. Echinoderms may also reproduce asexually, as well as regenerate body parts lost in trauma.

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