Star colonies of sea squirts

posted by Perrin Ireland / on November 17th, 2009 / in Chordates, lifecycles


Botryllus schlosseri is a colonial tunicate (or sea squirt), so named because it lives in colonies that are communally covered by a leathery tunic. Its larvae bear a striking resemblance to vertebrates, and are even called tadpoles. The resemblance is not superficial or coincidental, tunicates and their kin are the closest living relatives of vertebrates. Each tadpole attaches itself to a rock, pier, or other hard surface in the sea, and metamorphoses into a sack-like adult that will spend the rest of its life stuck in that one spot.

Tadpoles are produced sexually–they arise from an egg that is fertilized by a sperm. Like many other animals, though, Botryllus also reproduces asexually by budding off clones of itself. Each adult (also called a zooid) produces a bud, and this bud in turn begins producing another bud even before its own heart begins to beat. These clones remain attached to each other in a star shaped group with common central opening, called a siphon, and continue to share resources through their connected circulatory systems. Once the colony is large and robust enough, usually with 5 to 10 members, each adult forms a pair of ovaries and testes, and the next generation of tadpole larvae can be produced.

This is the first in a series of illustrated lifecycles I’ll be posting to CreatureCast.