Adaptations to sessility

Text only

Sessile organisms are those that spend their lives attached to the substrate. The most familiar examples to humans are vascular plants. Although sessile animals are exclusively aquatic, the basic issues confronting land plants will help us orient to their biology by analogy. Plants:

The issues confronting sessile animals are fundamentally similar, except that:

Caveat: No animal is completely, absolutely sessile. Even those that are permanently attached to the substrate as adults have some sort of free-swimming or planktonic (drifting) larval stage. For many, the shades of gray increase.

Thus, for our purposes, a sessile animal is one that spends the majority of its adult life attached to or rooted in the substrate and unable to move around. This definition excludes creatures like crinoids and most sea anemones, but includes:

This life-style has one distinct advantages:

Morphological adaptations

Surmounting the general challenges listed above has stimulated the repeated evolution of a surprisingly uniform suite of adaptations:

  • Radial symmetry: Sessile organisms need to be able to capture food and respond to stimuli, regardless of the direction from which they come. Thus, they tend to display radial symmetry. In the case of cnidarians, this is a plesiomorphic (ancestral) trait. In many others, it is secondarily imposed over a fundamentally bilaterally symmetrical body plan, as in the suspension feeding "Christmas-tree worm" annelids at left. In most cases with bilaterians, the feeding organ is superficially radial, even when the rest of the critter isn't. (E.G. bryozoans and tunicates.) The fossil record, however, contains sessile bilaterians whose entire bodies were superficially radial. E.G. Edrioasteroids - Paleozoic sessile echinoderms.

  • U-shaped guts: Bilaterians must approximate radial symmetry by having a U-shaped gut (see the bryozoan schematic above) or secondarily evolving a blind-ended gut (as many brachiopods have.)

  • Exceptions: Not all sessile bilaterians are secondarily radial, however. Brachiopods retain strong bilateral symmetry, even in their feeding organs. In phoronids, their soft-bodied relatives, the feeding organ, the lophophore is exposed. It is covered with cilia. Food particles intercepted by the lophophore tentacles are moved to the mouth by ciliary action. In brachiopods, the lophophore is enclosed between upper and lower valves. These control the flow of the ciliary current across the lophophore, eliminating the need to be able to capture food coming from any direction.

  • Scaling issues:

    Coloniality: For most, the solution to scaling issues is coloniality, in which an original zooid arises from parental gametes then buds off a series of clones. In colonial corals, bryozoans, and tunicates, individuals are connected by strands or sheets of living material, through which they share nutrients and nerve impulses. The colony's shape is independent of that of the individuals, and is relatively free of their scaling constraints. Additionally, it can vary in shape ecophenotypically, with different morphs for high and low energy regimes.

    Cone shells: We've previously addressed the convergent evolution of cone-shaped armored skeletons. In addition to what's shown below, many sponges, including archeocyathids also conform to this pattern.

    It's worth noting that these creatures have converged on this shell shape despite great differences in their feeding appendages.

    One probable advantage of this growth habit: Individuals can gain a foothold in a small piece of substrate when they are young, then expand to occupy more of it.

  • Plicae: In many bivalved organisms, most notably brachiopods, the commisure at which the valves meet forms a series of zig-zag plicae. Functions include:

  • Positioning and attachment: Position has two crucial aspects: Typically, sessile organisms have to attach to rigid substrates. This limits their feeding to within a few cm. of the bottom, and excludes them from soft (sandy or muddy) substrates. E.G.: brachiopods typically attach to the substrate using a very short fleshy stalk, the pedicle.

    The utility of such strategies depended on the energy of the environment.