Sea spiders just got weirder. The ocean arthropods pump blood with their guts, new research shows. It’s the first time this kind of circulatory system has been seen in nature.
It’s been no secret that sea spiders are bizarre — and more than a little creepy. Full grown, one could easily stretch across a dinner plate. They feed by sticking their proboscis into soft animals and sucking out the juices. They don’t have much room in their bodies, so their guts and reproductive organs reside in their spindly legs. And they don’t have gills or lungs. To cope, they absorb oxygen through their cuticle, or shell-like skin. Now scientists can add an especially odd circulatory system to this list.
Amy Moran is a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. “It’s been unclear for a long time how they actually move oxygen through their bodies,” she says. After all, they animals’ hearts appeared too feeble to do the necessary blood pumping.
To study these animals, Moran and her colleagues traveled to the waters around Antarctica. There, they dove beneath the ice to collect them. They harvested several different species. Back in the lab, the researchers injected fluorescent dye into the animals’ hearts, then watched where the blood went when the heart was beating. The blood went only to the animal’s head, body and proboscis, they found — not its legs.
Inside those long legs are tube-like digestive systems, similar to intestines. The scientists took a closer look at those legs. They saw that as the spiders digested food, the guts in the legs contracted in waves.
The researchers wondered if these contractions helped pump blood. To find out, they inserted electrodes into the animals' legs. The electrodes used electricity to spark a chemical reaction with oxygen in the legs’ liquid. Then they measured the oxygen levels present. Sure enough, gut contractions were moving oxygen around the body.
In another test, the scientists put sea spiders in water with low levels of oxygen. Contractions in the animals’ leggy guts sped up. This is similar to what happens in people deprived of oxygen: Their heart beats faster. The same thing also happened when they studied several species of sea spiders from temperate waters.
There are a few other animals, such as jellyfish, in which the gut plays a role in circulation. But this has never been seen before in a more complex animal that has separate digestive and circulatory systems, Moran says.
She and her team described their findings July 10 in Current Biology.
Louis Burnett is a comparative physiologist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He, too, finds the new sea-spider observations exciting. “The way they [circulate oxygen] is unique,” he says. “It’s a pretty novel finding because not a whole lot is known about sea spiders and how they breathe.”
Don’t fear the sea spiders
If you find sea spiders creepy, you’re not alone. Moran says she has always “had a thing” about land spiders and is especially afraid of them jumping on her. But once she spent time with sea spiders, she got over her fear. For one thing, although they have eight legs, they’re not really spiders. Both are arthropods. But spiders belong to a group called arachnids (Ah-RAK-nidz). Sea spiders are something else: pycnogonids (PIK-no-GO-nidz).
Sea spiders are colorful and very slow. Moran even finds them kind of cute. Like cats, these animals spend a lot of time grooming themselves. And the males care for the eggs. To do this, they shape the eggs into “donuts” and wear them on their legs while crawling around.
“It took me a while to get used to them,” Moran says. “But now I find them quite beautiful.”
Antarctica A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.
arachnid A group of invertebrate animals that includes spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks. Many have silk or poison glands.
arthropod Any of numerous invertebrate animals of the phylum Arthropoda, including the insects, crustaceans, arachnids and myriapods, that are characterized by an exoskeleton made of a hard material called chitin and a segmented body to which jointed appendages are attached in pairs.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
circulation (adj. circulatory) A term that refers to the pumping of some fluid repeatedly throughout a system of vessels. (in medicine) The pumping of blood through the arteries and smaller types of vessels (and from there into other organs and tissues).
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
cuticle Term for a tough but bendable protective outer shell or cover of some organism, or parts of an organism.
electrode A device that conducts electricity and is used to make contact with non-metal part of an electrical circuit, or that contacts something through which an electrical signal moves.
fluorescent (v. fluoresce) Adjective for something that is capable of absorbing and reemitting light. That reemitted light is known as fluorescence.
gills The respiratory organ of most aquatic animals that filters oxygen out of water. Fish and other water-dwelling animals use gills to breathe.
marine Having to do with the ocean world or environment.
marine biologist A scientist who studies creatures that live in ocean water, from bacteria and shellfish to kelp and whales.
organ (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.
oxygen A gas that makes up about 21 percent of Earth's atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their growth (and metabolism).
physiologist A scientist who studies the branch of biology that deals with how the bodies of healthy organisms function under normal circumstances.
proboscis A straw-like mouthpiece in bees, moths and butterflies used for sucking up liquids. The term can also be applied to an animal’s long snout (such as in an elephant).
pycnogonids Animals that resemble spiders but belong to a different group of arthropods. More than 1,000 species have been identified to date. Some eat algae, others scavenge food from their environment, still others act as predators (that suck the life juices out of their prey).
reproductive organs The organs in a creature’s body that allows it to make and deliver eggs or sperm, and where appropriate, to nurture developing eggs and fetuses.
temperate In geography, areas that are cooler than the tropics but warmer than polar regions.
unique Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.
wave A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.