Because echinoderms are immensely important! Huge numbers of sea stars, sea urchins, and their spiny relatives occur from shallow tide pools to the deepest ocean trenches, often in immense numbers. Their appetite for corals, clams, and kelp has a massive impact on marine ecosystems. Learn more >
Volunteers and donors play a vital role in museums, and they have made invaluable contributions to the collections and research in our department. Our collections continue to grow, thanks to donations of specimens from many individuals and institutions. We are enormously grateful to the generous volunteers who, over the years, have shared their skills and talent for scientific illustration, foreign languages, photography, data entry, microscopy and dissection, bibliographic data-basing, collection maintenance, and much more. We welcome inquiries from enthusiastic volunteers and students who are interested in an opportunity to improve our collections and participate in our research.
Echinoderms are sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, feather stars, and related animals. For many millions of years, they have been among the most conspicuous and abundant oceanic organisms. People around the world have recognized their beauty and importance since ancient times.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County began to acquire specimens of echinoderms in the 1920s through its Department of Marine Zoology. In 1985, the Museum became an internationally recognized center of echinoderm studies with the appointment of the first Echinoderms Curator, and with the accrual of major collections that elevated the Museum’s holdings to the third largest in the United States.
Our current research is wide ranging, dealing in part with the adaptations of hermaphroditic species (those, as Patrick O'Brien wrote, with "the dubious privilege of having two sexes at once"). In addition, we are using scanning electron microscopy to examine how echinoderms generate their bones from single crystals of calcite. Other studies in our lab focus on the ecology and behavior of coral reef and deep sea echinoderms. Our field work invariably leads to the discovery and description of new species, whether we are in California or in the tropics where echinoderms are most diverse.
We care for our collections as best as possible, but, like most actively used and growing museum collections, ours presents an endless backlog. Many of our samples have yet to be sorted and identified, and a majority of our collection records have yet to databased. These are tasks that we deal with daily in order to increase the usefulness of our specimens to the scientific community and the public.
Gordon Hendler is author of a popular book titled Sea Stars, Sea Urchins, and Allies. He has been Curator of Echinoderms since 1985, and has a particular fondness for brittle stars — the most beautiful and agile echinoderms.
After working as a volunteer in the Echinoderms Department, Cathy was hired as Curatorial Assistant in 1989. In addition to her collection care duties, Cathy is active in Museum family field trips.
This is the largest sea urchin in our region. It is a magnificent, reddish or deep-purple species, with a central body up to four inches in diameter and spines nearly as long. Although rarely seen in shallow tide pools, it is a critically important species in kelp forests. The red sea urchin's interactions with sea otters, abalone, and kelp plants strongly influence the ecology of kelp bed communities. Its numbers in Southern California have been depleted due to over fishing, but they are still commercially fished in northern California. Red urchins breed in the spring, and their gonads, which can be eaten raw or cooked, are considered a delicacy by many people and most sea otters.