Echinoderm is the common name given to any member of the phylum Echinodermata of marine animals. The adults are recognizable by their (usually five-point) radial symmetry, and include starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers, as well as the sea lilies or "stone lilies". Echinoderms are found at every ocean depth, from the intertidal zone to the abyssal zone. The phylum contains about 7000 living species, making it the second-largest grouping of deuterostomes (a superphylum), after the chordates (which include the vertebrates, such as birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles). Echinoderms are also the largest phylum that has no freshwater or terrestrial (land-based) representatives.
All echinoderms are marine and nearly all are benthic. The oldest known echinoderm fossil may be Arkarua from the Precambrian of Australia. It is a disc-like fossil with radial ridges on the rim and a five-pointed central depression marked with radial lines. However, no stereom or internal structure showing a water vascular system is present and the identification is inconclusive.
Echinoderms exhibit secondary radial symmetry in portions of their body at some stage of life. This, however, is an adaptation to their sessile existence. They developed from other members of the Bilateria and exhibit bilateral symmetry in their larval stage. Many crinoids and some seastars exhibit symmetry in multiples of the basic five, with starfish such as Labidiaster annulatus known to possess up to fifty arms, and the sea-lily Comaster schlegelii having two hundred.
One characteristic of most echinoderms is a special kind of tissue known as "catch connective tissue". This collagenous material can change its mechanical properties in a few seconds or minutes through nervous control rather than by muscular means. This tissue enables a starfish to change from moving flexibly around the seabed to becoming rigid while prying open a bivalve mollusc or preventing itself from being extracted from a crevice. Similarly, sea urchins can lock their normally mobile spines rigidly as a defensive mechanism when attacked.
Haemal and perihaemal systems are derived from the coelom and form an open and reduced circulatory system. This usually consists of a central ring and five radial vessels. There is no true heart and the blood often lacks any respiratory pigment. Gaseous exchange occurs via dermal branchiae or papulae in starfish, genital bursae in brittle stars, peristominal gills in sea urchins and cloacal trees in sea cucumbers. Exchange of gases also takes place through the tube feet. Echinoderms lack specialized excretory (waste disposal) organs and so nitrogenous waste, chiefly in the form of ammonia, diffuses out through the respiratory surfaces.
The planktotrophic larva is considered to be the ancestral larval type for echinoderms but after 500 million years of larval evolution, about 68% of species whose development is known have a lecithotrophic larval type. The provision of a yolk-sac means that smaller numbers of eggs are produced, the larvae have a shorter development period, smaller dispersal potential but a greater chance of survival. There seems to be an evolutionary trend towards a "lower-risk–lower-gain" strategy of direct development.
Many sea urchins feed on algae, often scraping off the thin layer of algae covering the surfaces of rocks with their specialised mouthparts known as Aristotle's lantern. Other species devour smaller organisms, which they may catch with their tube feet. They may also feed on dead fish and other animal matter. Sand dollars may perform suspension feeding and feed on phytoplankton, detritus, algal pieces and the bacterial layer surrounding grains of sand.
The calcareous tests or shells of echinoderms are used as a source of lime by farmers in areas where limestone is unavailable and some are used in the manufacture of fish meal. Four thousand tons of the animals are used annually for these purposes. This trade is often carried out in conjunction with shellfish farmers, for whom the starfish pose a major threat by eating their cultured stock. Other uses for the starfish they recover include the manufacture of animal feed, composting and drying for the arts and craft trade.