Echinoderms lack a centralized nervous control system, yet each extant echinoderm class has evolved unique and effective strategies for locomotion. Brittle stars (Ophiuroidea) stride swiftly over the seafloor by coordinating motions of their five muscular arms. Their arms consist of many repeating segments, requiring them to use a complex control system to coordinate motions among segments and between arms. We conducted in vivo experiments with brittle stars to analyze the functional role of the nerve ring, which connects the nerves in each arm. These experiments were designed to determine how the ophiuroid nervous system performs complex decision making and locomotory actions under decentralized control. Our results show that brittle star arms must be connected by the nerve ring for coordinated locomotion, but information can travel bidirectionally around the nerve ring so that it circumvents the severance. Evidence presented indicates that ophiuroids rely on adjacent nerve ring connections for sustained periodic movements. The number of arms connected via the nerve ring is correlated positively with the likelihood that the animal will show coordinated locomotion, indicating that integrated nerve ring tissue is critical for control. The results of the experiments should provide a basis for the advancement of complex artificial decentralized systems.
ASJC Scopus subject areas