We have a front and a back and two legs. We walk around on our two legs. When we need to change the direction we are moving in, we first turn our body to face the new direction and then use our same two legs to keep going. It works for us.
But what about a round animal that also has an odd number of limbs? This is the question that Henry Astley, a graduate student in Tom Robert’s lab here at the Brown University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, set out to answer. Like their relatives the starfish, brittlestars have five arms. Unlike starfish, which crawl around with the thousands of sticky tube feet that line the bottoms of their arms, brittlestars get around by moving their whole arms. They can move much more quickly than starfish, scurrying under a rock or sprinting across the ocean bottom.
Surprisingly, nobody had previously described the details of how brittlestars get around with their arms. Do all five arms play an equal part all the time, or do only some of the arms move at once? Do they have a favorite front and back, or can any arm serve as the front or back?
In his paper published this week (“Getting around when you’re round: quantitative analysis of the locomotion of the blunt-spined brittle star, Ophiocoma echinata“), Henry answers all these questions. It turns out that most of the work of getting around is only done by two arms at a time. These arms move in a rowing motion, much like a sea turtle crawling along the beach, while the other arms stay out of the way. My favorite part of the story though, is how brittlestars turn. Rather than rotate their body to face a new direction, as we do, they just chose a new front and back and row with a different pair of arms. Not only do they not have a favorite front and back, they constantly change their front and back to change direction.