The ophiuroids diverged in the Early Ordovician, about 500 million years ago. Ophiuroids can be found today in all of the major marine provinces, from the poles to the tropics. In fact, crinoids, holothurians, and ophiuroids live at depths from 16-35 m, all over the world. Basket stars usually confined to the deeper parts of this range. Ophiuroids are known even from abyssal (>6000 m) depths. However brittle stars are also common, if cryptic, members of reef communities, where they hide under rocks and even within other living organisms. A few ophiuroid species can even tolerate brackish water, an ability otherwise almost unknown among echinoderms. A brittle star’s skeleton is made up of embedded ossicles.
The mouth is rimmed with five jaws, and serves as an anus (egestion) as well as a mouth (ingestion). Behind the jaws is a short esophagus and a large, blind stomach cavity which occupies much of the dorsal half of the disk. Ophiuroids have neither a head nor an anus. Digestion occurs within 10 pouches or infolds of the stomach, which are essentially ceca, but unlike in sea stars, almost never extend into the arms. The stomach wall contains glandular hepatic cells.
Ophiuroids are generally scavengers or detritivores. Small organic particles are moved into the mouth by the tube feet. Ophiuroids may also prey on small crustaceans or worms. Basket stars in particular may be capable of suspension feeding, using the mucus coating on their arms to trap plankton and bacteria. They extend one arm out and use the other four as anchors. Brittle stars will eat small suspended organisms if available. In large, crowded areas, brittle stars eat suspended matter from prevailing seafloor currents.
In basket stars the arms are used to rhythmically sweep food to the mouth. Pectinura will consume beech pollen in the New Zealand fjords (since those trees hang over the water). Eurylina clings to coral branches to browse on the polyps.
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