What are sea pansies?

Sea pansies can be found in the warmer areas of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Sea pansies are fleshy, leaf-shaped colonies of marine organisms that belong to the genus Renilla, which is in the same phylum Cnidaria as jellyfish and corals. In fact, they are not a flower, but a type of soft coral known as Pennatulacea. They are considered aggregate organisms, which is a colony made up of numerous individuals.

Colonies of sea pansies consist of stems formed by large organisms called primary polyps, which can be up to 5.08 cm in diameter. These primary polyps have a fleshy structure called a peduncle that extends from the underside of the main colony. The peduncle launches into the sand to anchor the pansies to the ocean floor.

Sea pansies are a type of coral.

The pansy-like body that the sea pansies are named after is actually made up of several types of smaller secondary polyps. Some of these secondary polyps are responsible for feeding the pansy. These foraging polyps extend above the sand and secrete sticky mucus to capture any tiny zooplankton and organic matter that venture nearby. Each food polyp sends its food to a common digestive system, so the entire colony eats or starves together.

Small white dots are located between the feeding polyps. These light particles are a specialized polyp that acts as a sort of water pump or outlet valve that deflates and inflates the entire colony. This is useful when the sea pansy is threatened by a predator or is trapped in a sand bar at low tide.

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Sea pansies have stalks that are red, blue or purple and studded with bright white polyps. Sea pansies are remarkably bioluminescent when touched or attacked by a predator. This bioluminescence is caused by Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). This protein generates waves of bright green light that pulse outward from the point of contact. These pulses of light often help to distract the potential predator.

These unusual creatures are typically found in the warmer areas of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and are sometimes referred to as “Atlantic corals”. These organisms begin life as planktonic larvae that hatch from the same egg. All polyps are clones of each other. As the sea pansy matures, it moves towards shallower sandy plains using colony-wide contractions. These organisms love to anchor in sandy plains and are often found living completely buried in the sand.

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