Sea anemones are a common sight on many coastlines, and despite their brightly coloured appearance it seems they may have a common ancestor with humans. What’s more, researchers are wondering whether the creatures could hold the secret to eternal life, writes Mary Colwell.
The wicked queen in the tale of Snow White is famous for her rhetorical question: “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” But her dream of eternal youth is an elusive one – as the years roll by the human body slowly but surely shrinks, sags and droops as cells mutate and die. Hearing, mobility, mental agility, muscle and brain mass all decline.
The queen is on a trajectory common to most living organisms, apart, that is, from a humble, often overlooked creature of the seashore – the sea anemone.
Once thought to be plants, sea anemones are soft bodied animals that attach themselves to rocks and coral reefs in shallow waters. Their tentacles inject venom into the small fish and shrimp that brush up against them and guide the paralysed prey into the mouth – an opening that also functions as an anus.
There are more than 1,000 species of anemone, varying in size from a few centimetres to more than a metre across. They live in every ocean, from the warmest to the coldest.
The most familiar in the UK is the beadlet anemone. At low tide the tentacles are drawn in and the animals look like blobs of deep red jelly stuck to the rock. But as the water flows, the blobs transform and start to resemble flowers, their tentacles caressing the moving water, searching for food.
The “wondrous elegance of form, the exquisite brilliance of colours, the great variety, the instincts, the powers, the most elaborate apparatus, bestowed on these humble creatures,” is described by 19th Century marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse in his book A Year at the Shore. His effusive prose inspired a nation that was just beginning to explore the seaside. His readers used to gather anemones and kept them in aquariums at home.