Many animals have cunning ways of hiding from predators. But the larva of the sand dollar takes that to an extreme – it avoids being spotted by splitting itself into two identical clones.
Sand dollars are members of a group of animals called echinoderms, that include sea urchins and starfish. An adult sand dollar (Dendraster excentricus) is a flat, round disc that lives a sedate life on the sea floor. Its larva, also known as a pluteus, is very different, a small, six-armed creature that floats freely among the ocean’s plankton.
A pluteus can’t swim quickly, so there is no escape for one if it is attacked by a hungry fish. Instead, Dawn Vaughan and Richard Strathmann from the University of Washington discovered that the pluteus relies on not being spotted in the first place.
They exposed 4-day-old larvae to water which contained mucus from the skin of a potential predator – the Dover sole. Within 24 hours, every single larva that was exposed to the mucus has grown a small bud that eventually detached and developed into a second larva, genetically identical to its parent and smaller in size. In contrast, larvae that were exposed to untouched seawater stayed undivided.