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California Sea Cucumber Breathes Out of Its Butt: Weird Washington, Oregon Coast Science

Published 04/23/2020 at 6:54 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

California Sea Cucumber Breathes Out of Its Butt: Weird Washington, Oregon Coast Science

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(Oregon Coast) – They are a true freak of the deep along the Oregon coast and Washington coast. The California Sea Cucumber is also known by the names Giant Sea Cucumber and Giant Red Sea Cucumber, and they’re a truly weird mix of alien movie and punk rock aesthetics. Fat, long and purple, they have these funky spikes all along their bodies, and they do a bunch of really oddball things in their daily life like breath out of their butts. (Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

That’s right, the California Sea Cucumber (Parastichopus californicus) is a butt breather. Not only that, it uses its anus as a second mouth, eating out of that orifice as well.

Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium said they have some on display at the facility right now, which everyone can go see when it opens back up. They’re found all along the Washington and Oregon coasts, from Baja, Mexico through to Canada and up to Alaska, actually. You’ll find them in the shallow waters off the beaches and sometimes in tidepools.

They don’t actually have lungs, but instead a set of long tubes going down either side of the body with multiple branches.

Photo above courtesy Seaside Aquarium

“California Sea Cucumbers, along with other species of sea cucumbers have a respiratory tree with is fed by the cucumber breathing through its anus,” Boothe said. “Their anus expands and contracts their muscular body wall in a slow rhythm with draws in and expels water. This is unique to sea cucumbers - no other echinoderm has a respiratory tree. Not all sea cucumbers breath like this. The skin breathing sea cucumber's body wall is so thin that it allows oxygen to pass through, hence its name.”

This spiky, slightly punk rock-looking critter is actually kind of hard to measure in the live environment as it has a habit of contracting and expanding, but they’re generally about two feet long. It’s known as the longest of the sea cucumber of the western coastline.

Also soooo punk rock – but in an alien way – is what happens with those pointy cones and how they deal with enemies. Those spikes can come and go, Boothe said.

“They have the ability to change the texture of their skin,” Boothe said. “They can make themselves look spiky or very smooth. The purpose for looking spiky is to deter predators. Another tactic they use to deter predators is to expel their internal organs. The idea is the would-be predator will take a bite out of the expelled organs which have a nasty bitter taste and leave the cucumber alone. The cucumber can regenerate the expelled organs in about six weeks.”

Again, with the Giant Sea Cucumber it’s all about the butt: it expels its organs that way.

Scientists call their breeding method “broadcast spawning,” meaning it’s an external method where the female fires off multiple unfertilized eggs into the water, and the male releases its sperm in great numbers. Hopefully the two meet and fertilize some eggs. Then, for their first four years the Giant Sea Cucumber is sexless, developing into separate sexes after that four-year mark.

The array of sea cucumbers along the Oregon and Washington coastlines is impressive.

"The Pacific Northwest has between 30 and 40 different species of sea cucumbers," Boothe said. " Most commonly seen is the California sea cucumber mainly because of size, it is the largest in the region.  We have California sea cucumbers (Parastichopus californicus) and burrowing sea cucumbers (Cucumaria miniata) on display at the aquarium."

Stranger still – though you’ve likely lost your appetite by now – they are edible and hunted for fisheries along the California, Washington and Oregon coasts.

In California, they’re sold fresh. They’re popular in China in soups or stews. Yet they don’t have much of a taste, apparently, and their meat is a somewhat unappealing gelatinous texture. When used in the culinary world, they’re heavily infused with other flavors, and they’re popular in some circles when they're deep-fried or pickled. Hotels in Astoria/Seaside - Where to eat - Astoria Maps and Virtual Tours

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