While studying endangered turtle populations on islands Qaru and Umm Al-Maradim every summer, and as we roam around their habitat inside and outside the islands' turquoise reef waters, we occasionally stumble upon rare treasures of the sea, created wisely to melt into the food chain but often also fill its environment with beauty. Coral reefs around Kuwaiti sand cays are populated by sea urchins and their colourful shells adorn the beaches. But this time the waters of Qaru amazed us with a cousin of the urchin: While on a custom snorkel there it was, lying on the sea floor in four meters of water, featuring a beauty very few sea creatures possess. The size of a palm of a child, it featured a star on its body, or did it look like a leaf of a plant? It was a miracle to behold. It was a sand dollar.
Spotted by us for the first time on Qaru reef after seven years of presence there, it stunned us with its beauty. The term sand dollar (or sea cookie or snapper biscuit in New Zealand, or pansy shell in South Africa) refers to species of extremely flattened, burrowing sea urchin belonging to the order Clypeasteroida. Some species within sea urchins, sea cucumbers and starfish. "Our beloved Kuwait hosts natural treasures beyond belief, which we should all cherish and do our best to preserve for future generations", says Sheikha Fatima Al-Sabah, co-sponsor of this year's work of KTCP.
"Science is proving to us that nature's creations and their beauty in their environment helps us deal with everyday life with more optimism and positivity", equal co-sponsor and Chairwoman of the Al Nowair initiative, Sheikha Instisar Al-Salem Al-Sabah believes.
Sand dollars live beyond the mean low water line on top of or just beneath the surface of sandy or muddy areas. The spines on the somewhat flattened underside of the animal allow it to burrow or to slowly creep through the sediment. Fine, hair-like cilia cover the tiny spines. Thin legs that line the food grooves move food to the mouth opening, which is in the center of the star-shaped grooves on the underside of the animal. Its food consists of crustacean larvae, small copepods, diatoms, algae and detritus.
On the ocean bottom, sand dollars are frequently found together, though the one that we found lay there alone.
In 2008, biologists learned that sand dollar larvae clone themselves as a mechanism of self-defense. Larvae have been observed to undergo this process when food is plentiful or temperature conditions are optimal. It has also been suggested that cloning may occur to make use of the tissues that are normally lost during metamorphosis. Recent research has shown that the larvae of some sand dollars clone themselves when they detect predators. Larvae exposed to mucus from predatory fish respond to the threat by cloning themselves, thus doubling their numbers while effectively halving their size. The smaller larvae are better able to escape detection by fish, but may be more vulnerable to predation by smaller animals, such as pelagic and planktonic larval stages of crustaceans.
As we hold this beautiful piece of natural artistry in our hands, we think of how lucky we are to be in Kuwait, where fabulous creatures as this one create a marine paradise of serenity, diversity and perfection. Sea turtles definitely know where they go place their nests. Only perfection for their offspring, in every way.
Nancy Papathanasopoulou, Manager, Kuwait Turtle Conservation Project