Side by side, sea cucumbers and wild cucumbers look quite similar; they share a cucumber-like shape (surprise, surprise!) and spiny skin – sea cucumbers are part of the phylum Echinodermata, which means “spiny skin”. Although they share the same name, they two organisms are vastly different.
For starters, sea cucumbers are animals, whereas wild cucumbers are plants. Sea cucumbers are heterotrophs, which means they must consume other organisms or their products for energy. They are mostly scavengers; their diet consists largely of plankton and organic matter found on the sea floor. Sea cucumbers use shovel-shaped appendages called “peltate tentacles” to move sediment into their body where their refined digestive system is able to absorb the nutrients and excrete a finer sediment behind. This makes sea cucumbers pivotal in processing the ocean seabed. Conversely, the wild cucumber’s diet consists of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. These photosynthetic organisms convert carbon dioxide into sugars so they can grow, making oxygen as a byproduct. They are called autotrophs, meaning they can create their own form of energy rather than consuming other organisms to live.
Some other differences in the cucumbers have to do with where they live and how they protect themselves. Most sea cucumbers are benthic invertebrates, meaning they can usually be found underwater on the seabed, buried in the sand, or hidden in crevices. They use their unassuming, rock-like bodies to camouflage themselves from credulous predators. Not to worry, if spotted the sea cucumber has a unique defense mechanism it uses to get escape. When a sea cucumber gets stressed or upset, it will eviscerate – meaning it will puke up its guts. I’m not talking about its morning breakfast, I mean the whole shebang. Tentacles, intestines, and other internal organs are all shed in order to scare the predator or offer it an easy meal as the cucumber gets away. After eviscerating, the sea cucumber can usually re-grow the lost organs within a few days!
Wild cucumbers are epiphytes; in other words, they are plants that grow non-parasitically on other plants. They are able to absorb sunlight and water on their own without acting as a detriment to their lovely host. Unlike sea cucumbers, they do not have the ability to eviscerate and re-grow their internal organs. Instead, wild cucumbers have developed an extra spiny skin and a toxic vine. If ingested, wild cucumbers can cause stomach upset or even death. Probably not the best choice to slice up on your fresh garden salad!
So if there is anything that you, the reader, take away from this post it’s that wild cucumbers and sea cucumbers are not to be trusted on a dinner plate. One could kill you, the other could expel its guts in your mouth– you decide which is worse!
Written by: Max Veenema