The ocean is full of bizarre and fascinating animals that we barely understand. Even the seemingly defenseless creatures that slowly inch their way along the ocean floor are capable of defending against predators. This is a world where the balance between predator and prey is a fine line and it can change in an instant.
This is a species of sea cucumber with one of nature's most imaginative and baffling means of protecting itself. When threatened, it shoots strings of sticky material from its anus to tangle up and defeat would be predators. The cucumber squeezes its body to create a rip in an internal wall so that short threads, called Cuvierian tubules, can be ejected. But as soon as the threads are exposed to sea water, they stretch to more than 20 times their original length. The tubules become sticky when they are in contact with any surface, such as the body of an animal that is trying to eat them.
Researchers studied the cucumbers and made careful observations of the expelled tubules. They anesthetized sea cucumbers and surgically removed some of the shorter tubules that had not been expelled. They studied the cells and found some that were completely expected, such as the ones found in other echinoderms, like starfish. Other cells in the tubules were completely unexpected and they behaved in ways that surprised researchers.
Now, engineers are studying these cells in an effort to improve technology and create new substances that stretch and stiffen like the collagenous material found in the tubules. The goal is to create shape-shifting materials that change form when we need them to.
As we learn more about the ocean and the creatures that live there, we learn more about how to use the imaginative genius of nature in our own world to help us in many ways. Scientists and biologists are constantly applying new findings from the natural world to combat disease and illness, prolong life, and make our use of energy more efficient. A seemingly unimportant animal, like this sea cucumber, often plays a more complex and vital role than we realize in the health of our planet. Too often, we learn the importance of something only after it has been threatened or lost completely.