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Getting around when you’re round: quantitative analysis of the locomotion of the blunt-spined brittle star, Ophiocoma echinata
Henry C. Astley


Brittle stars (Ophiuroidea, Echinodermata) are pentaradially symmetrical echinoderms that use five multi-jointed limbs to locomote along the seafloor. Prior qualitative descriptions have claimed coordinated movements of the limbs in a manner similar to tetrapod vertebrates, but this has not been evaluated quantitatively. It is uncertain whether the ring-shaped nervous system, which lacks an anatomically defined anterior, is capable of generating rhythmic coordinated movements of multiple limbs. This study tested whether brittle stars possess distinct locomotor modes with strong inter-limb coordination as seen in limbed animals in other phyla (e.g. tetrapods and arthropods), or instead move each limb independently according to local sensory feedback. Limb tips and the body disk were digitized for 56 cycles from 13 individuals moving across sand. Despite their pentaradial anatomy, all individuals were functionally bilateral, moving along the axis of a central limb via synchronous motions of contralateral limbs (±∼13% phase lag). Two locomotor modes were observed, distinguishable mainly by whether the central limb was directed forwards or backwards. Turning was accomplished without rotation of the body disk by defining a different limb as the center limb and shifting other limb identities correspondingly, and then continuing locomotion in the direction of the newly defined anterior. These observations support the hypothesis that, in spite of their radial body plan, brittle stars employ coordinated, bilaterally symmetrical locomotion.


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