The Pycnogonida are a group of marine arthropods known as "sea spiders" for their resemblance to true, terrestrial spiders. Although there has been much debate during the past century regarding which arthropod groups are their closest relatives, growing consensus places the pycnogonids as an early branching lineage that is the sister group to the chelicerates (arachnids plus horseshoe crabs) (Giribet and Edgecombe 2012).
There are around a thousand described species of pycnogonids (and probably hundreds more not yet described). They are found worldwide from the intertidal zone to depths of nearly 7,000 m. Most pycnogonids are small, with leg spans of less than a centimeter (in some species, just a few millimeters), but some deep-sea species have leg spans of up to 60 cm. Many species are errant (i.e., they actively move about), but others live on seaweeds or on other invertebrates, such as sea anemones, hydroids, ectoprocts, and tunicates (at least one or two species live on the bells of pelagic medusae and pycnogonids have also been observed on the huge vestimentiferan worms living in the hydothermal vent community of the Galapagos Rift).
The walking legs of pycnogonids are 9-segmented. Most of the commonly encountered intertidal species have short, thick legs and are quite sedentary, moving very slowly. Deep-water bottom-dwelling species tend to have longer, thinner legs and to be more active, walking on the tips of their legs. Many pycnogonids are also known to swim periodically.
Most species are generalist predators (and, in many cases, scavengers), although a few feed on algae. Food is obtained by sucking it through the proboscis (often just body fluids and tissue fragments from their prey.).
Pycnogonids are dioecious (i.e., with separate males and females) and embryos are brooded by the male. In many species, distinctive 6-legged larvae (immature forms) are released by the brooding male that live in some sort of symbiotic relationship with cnidarians, molluscs, or echinoderms.
(Brusca and Brusca 2003)
Bamber and El Nagar provide an online database on pycnogonid names, taxonomy, museum specimens, and literature.
- Bamber, R.N. and A. El Nagar (Eds). 2013. Pycnobase: World Pycnogonida Database. Available online at http://www.marinespecies.org/pycnobase.
- Brusca, R.C. and G.J. Brusca. 2003. Invertebrates, 2nd edition. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.
- Giribet, G. and G.D. Edgecombe. 2012. Reevaluating the Arthropod Tree of Life. Annual Review of Entomology 57: 167-186.