Sea Cucumber

Associated Smithsonian Expert: David L. Pawson, Ph.D.

Dave Pawson

Dr. David Pawson is a senior researcher and an expert on echinoderms, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and sea stars at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He studies echinoderms to understand how they live in different ocean ecosystems, how they are grouped together or classified, and how they reproduce. He grew up on the North Island of New Zealand, but came to work at the Smithsonian in 1964 after getting his doctorate degree. His research has taken him across the world and deep into the ocean. He has travelled to Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean, and the east and west coasts of the United States. He has gone on 100 dives in deep-sea submersibles such as the Alvin and the Johnson-Sea-Link. In the 1980s Pawson was a member of a team of four scientists who made more than 150 submersible dives off Florida and in the Caribbean, to study echinoderms. They discovered about 200 species, about thirty percent of which were new to science.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Sea Cucumber on the Great Barrier Reef
Courtesy of Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR, public domain


About Sea Cucumbers (Class Holothuroidea): Use by Humans

Sea cucumbers are exploited by humans, mainly as food. Despite their name, they are not eaten whole like a cucumber because their bodies contain toxic chemicals. Instead, they are boiled to separate the external body wall from the organs. The body wall is served as a delicacy in Asian cuisine (trepang) or dried for use as flavoring. It turns out that the toxins make sea cucumbers valuable for other uses. Fisherman put ground sea cucumbers into the water to cause respiratory problems in fishes, making them semi-conscious and easier to catch. Sea cucumber toxins have medicinal potential for humans. Pharmaceutical companies are studying their properties as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and/or anticoagulants. Their usefulness has put sea cucumber populations at risk, for example off Ecuador's coast where they are heavily fished for export to Asian markets. Concern about overharvest has led Ecuador and other nations to include sea cucumbers in marine management plans.