Described as the flowers of the sea because of their colourful appearance, sea anemones are actually animals. They are made up of stinging tentacles and a mouth, with a column shaped body and a sticky foot which it uses to attach to rocks etc. Most are a few centimetres in diameter but some species can exceed a metre. And as well as the variety of size, you find a huge range of colour, pattern and shapes. These bizarre beauties have been said to inspire ‘whimsy and fancy’, but only when alive; their colour fades very quickly after death, making them difficult to preserve.
Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share.
So what do anemones have to be afraid of? Well, there are the pom pom crabs which pick them up and use them as weapons. And the wonderfully named butterflyfish who eat them. There are also the humans, especially Victorian humans…
Naturalist Philip Henry Gosse used lavish prose and scientific acumen to inspire the Victorians to a love of anemones and a desire to collect them. Unfortunately, this craze put pressure on some areas of wild anemones. And those which were collected didn’t necessarily have a great life… Anemones need oxygen to survive and Victorian fish tanks didn’t come with pumps… More recently, finding nemo put pressure on anemone populations with a rush of interest from buyers.
Other dangers come from snails and sea slugs, not your typical predators, with some species living almost exclusively on the anemones. Sea stars wrap themselves around the anemone, essentially engulfing it with their stomach. And then there are loggerhead turtles who use their powerful jaws to munch down on the tentacled creature.
But it isn’t all bad for them, they have a friend in nemo! Clownfish have a protective coat which means they don’t get stung by the tentacles of the anemone. In exchange for this shelter, the clownfish aggressively protect the sea anemone from predators.
And they don’t need to be so concerned about getting hurt as some species are almost immortal – if you cut them in half you get two, if you cut off their mouth they grow a new one. They are constantly replacing their body and cells – a strategy which may provide scientists with insight around ageing and human immortality (not that I think that’s a great idea…).
In addition to this, they are active predators. The slightest touch against their tentacles fires a paralysing neurotoxin into their prey which is then helpless to defend themselves.
So, despite their shy seeming demeanour and their vulnerability to slugs, sea anemones are a lot more robust and resilient than we might give them credit for.