They may appear a little… vegetative, but once you get to know them, sea cucumbers (Holothuria) are fascinating creatures. These pickle-shaped echinoderms lay on their side, using five rows of tube-feet along their body to get around. They make use of another set of feet around their mouth to gather particles of plankton and other organic matter.
Amazingly, sea cukes protect themselves from predators by expelling their internal organs out of their butts! This works to either frighten (disgust?) or satisfy the appetite of their predators, and they simply grow a new set of viscera over the next two to six weeks. This regenerative ability holds incredible medical potential, leading most recently to the development of artificial corneas. As well, a protein found in sea cucumbers may hold promise in the fight against malaria.
Despite a stodgy appearance, sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy in many Asian communities. Nicknamed ‘ginseng of the sea”, many believe they are endowed with aphrodisiac powers. In Korea and Japan, bits of sea cuke innards are eaten raw or pickled. The body is also dried and sold as beche-de-mer.
Holothuria tend to be vulnerable to overfishing- and as Asian markets overexploited stocks closer to home, markets have ventured further and further afield. Today there is a relatively new "exploratory" sea cucumber fishery here in Nova Scotia. Modified scallop dredges lift them off the sea floor, along with various other bottom dwellers. (Photos courtesy of The Intersection. Critter courtesy of Naomi.)