Fast!

My sand dollar larvae are developing very quickly! When I checked on them Thursday afternoon about 24 hours post-fertilization, I anticipated seeing them up in the water column because that's how long it takes urchins to hatch. Remember, sea urchins and sand dollars are in the same taxonomic class (Echinoidea) and share a larval form called the echinopluteus. I've watched urchin development often enough that I have a sort of intuitive feel for how it goes, and am subconsciously comparing these sand dollars to the urchins' time table. I need to stop doing that.

Anyway, on Thursday the sand dollars had indeed hatched. The big surprise was that when I examined them under the microscope I saw that they were much further along than urchin embryos would be at the same age. I expected to see the embryos swimming around as blastulae (hollow balls of ciliated cells); however, these sand dollar embryos had almost completed the process of gastrulation to form their archenteron, or first gut.

Gastrulating embryo of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus, age 24 hrs. 24 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Gastrulating embryo of the sand dollar Dendraster excentricus, age 24 hrs.
24 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

In echinoids the archenteron develops from an invagination into the blastula. Imagine a balloon. Now imagine poking your finger into the balloon--you've just made an invagination. If you continue the invagination across the entire balloon until your fingertip pops out on the other side, you've created a tube that penetrates through the balloon. This tube is the archenteron. Interesting tangent: You know that any one-way gut has two openings, right? One is the mouth and the other is the anus. The point in the blastula where gastrulation begins is called the blastopore. The fate of the blastopore is to be either the mouth or the anus of the archenteron. Echinoderms are deuterostomes ("second mouth"), a term that means the blastopore becomes the anus and the mouth is the second opening that forms when the invagination punches through to the other side of the blastula. Yes, sea urchins and sea stars and sand dollars all have an anus before they have a mouth. And guess what? So did you. The chordates, including us, are also deuterostomes.

These sand dollar embryos went from zygote almost to feeding larva in only 24 hours. In fact, some of them may have had mouths when I looked at them on Thursday. I had to start feeding them, so that food would be available as soon as they were able to eat.

Another 24 hours later, on Friday afternoon, I checked on the larvae again and they were bona fide plutei already. They had the cup-shaped body body of the pluteus larva and two pairs of arms, with complete guts. The stomachs in these larvae are huge, occupying almost the entire volume of the main body of the animal. Some of the larvae are also developing red pigment spots.

Early four-armed pluteus larva of Dendraster excentricus, age 2 days. 25 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Early four-armed pluteus larva of Dendraster excentricus, age 2 days.
25 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

See how big and round that tummy is?

And how could I have forgotten that the plutei of Dendraster have fenestrated arm rods??? They are so beautiful! This is the same animal as in the photo above, but I focused in on the skeletal rods in the postoral arms. See the fenestrations in the rods? The larva is about 300 µm long.

Pluteus larva of D. excentricus, age 2 days. 25 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pluteus larva of D. excentricus, age 2 days.
25 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

For whatever reason, plutei of the local species of sea urchins don't have fenestrated arm rods. This difference in larval morphology between the two most common echinoid species in the area should make it easy to identify plutei collected in plankton tows. We're at the beginning of the spring bloom now, and I hope to keep an eye on how the plankton community develops through the spring and summer.

The next day I examine the larvae is Monday. I'll see if they're still on the fast track to metamorphosis.

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