Sea pens | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Sea pens

Penatulacea

Distribution

Range depends on species, some are circumglobal while others are more restricted

Ecosystem/Habitat

Sandy or muddy bottoms

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomy

Class Anthozoa (corals, anemones & relatives); Order Pennatulacea (sea pens)

Share

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Google+

Sea pens are colonial corals. Like their relatives, sea pens are made up of a colony of several polyps (individual animals). What makes them unique among colonial corals is that each polyp is specialized to perform specific functions. One of their polyps develops into a rigid, erect stalk, which anchors the rest of the colony to the ocean floor. This gives many sea pens an appearance similar to a large feather or old-fashioned quill pen, which is how they got their name.

Sea pens come in all shapes, sizes and colours; however each colony and species has a central stem, called the rachis, which anchors and supports the rest of the colony. The rachis is a specialized polyp which develops into an erect stalk. It loses all its tentacles and forms a bulbous root (called the peduncle), which secures the colony to the ocean floor. In some species, this stalk, or rachis, can be more than a metre long. Most sea pens have a skeleton made of calcium carbonate that runs down its length. Branching off of the central rachis are the other polyps, which are used for such things as feeding, taking in water or reproduction. Despite their name, not all sea pens look like old-fashioned quill pens. Some species lack the “feather-like” structure and look more like clubs, umbrellas or pinwheels.

Sea pens reach sexual maturity between four and six years of age. You can estimate the age of a sea pen by looking at its height and size. Each individual sea pen, or colony, is typically either male or female but there are reports of a few hermaphroditic colonies in which each individual is both male and female. Sea pens typically have a relatively equal sex ratio of one male for every female. They exhibit either seasonal or continuous spawning (the release of eggs and sperm), depending on the species. The vast majority of sea pen species use broadcast spawning to reproduce. During broadcast spawning, male and female sea pens release all of their eggs and sperm at the same time to increase their chances of successful reproduction. 

The timing of spawning has often been correlated with water temperature, the moon cycle and the availability of food. Sea pens produce a lot of offspring, with individual colonies able to release between 2,000 and 200,000 eggs. Once fertilized, the larvae will drift in the ocean for anywhere between a few days to a month, searching for sandy or muddy bottoms to settle in to. They feed on the “yolk” they are provided with at birth until they settle and begin to grow their first polyp and tentacles to catch food. This metamorphosis usually occurs rapidly, and allows the juvenile sea pen to begin actively feeding. If there is sufficient food, the rest of their growth into adulthood is relatively quick at first and then slows down. Like all other corals, sea pens are filter feeders, capturing plankton and detritus (dead plant and animal matter) in their tentacles to eat. The main predators of sea pens are nudibranchs (sea slugs) as juveniles and sea stars as adults.

Sea pens are not targeted by any fisheries; however they can be damaged or killed by bottom-contacting gears, like dredges, bottom trawls, bottom gillnets and bottom longlines. Sea pens can also be damaged or killed by ghost fishing gear, which is gear that has been lost or forgotten in the ocean and continues to cause harm to marine life.

There are numerous species of sea pens that can be found in all of Canada’s oceans (Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic), however none have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) or listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). There is still much to learn about sea pens, especially since many species have yet to be identified and classified and are only known at the family or genus level of scientific classification.