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Tuatara: Volume 22, Issue 3, February 1977

Predators of Sea Anemones

page 213

Predators of Sea Anemones


A review is presented of literature concerning invertebrate and some vertebrate predators of sea anemones. Several previously unpublished records for New Zealand are given.


Invertebrates, particularly the nudibranch Aeolidia papillosa (Boutan, 1898; Fleure and Walton, 1907), pycnogonids (Stephenson, 1928) and starfish (Verwey, 1930), have long been regarded as important or potentially important predators of sea anemones, and actual records are not uncommon for northern hemisphere species (Tables 1, 2).

There appears to be only one previously published record of an invertebrate preying on an anemone in the New Zealand and Australian region, and a few records for vertebrate predators (Table 3). This review therefore aims to encourage more records for these two countries.


As predators of sea anemones, Stephenson (1928) cited ‘various fishes, crabs and other crustacea, nudibranchs, starfish, the larger worms [and] pycnogonids’. The relative importance of these predators is still difficult to assess, because of a lack of detailed field studies.

Aeolids have been the most frequently observed predators (Table 1), and Stephenson (1928) thought that these molluscs ‘are no doubt responsible for a good deal of damage’ to actinians in the wild. Fleure and Walton (1907) considered Aeolidia papillosa to be ‘the most formidable enemy sea-anemones possess’, and Harris (1971) suggested that seasonal fluctuations in the numbers of A. papillosa could influence the distribution patterns of its prey, Metridium senile. Certainly, this particular nudibranch exhibits a distinct preference for actinian species such as Actinia equina and Anthopleura elegantissima (Miller, 1961; Waters, 1973; Edmunds, Potts, Swinfen and Waters, 1975), to which it is attracted from some distance (Stehouwer, 1952; Braams and Geelen, 1953), but many more in situ studies, such as Wobber's (1970) observations of Dendronotus iris feeding on Cerianthus sp., are still needed.

The opisthobranch genus Aeolidia is poorly represented in the southern hemisphere, and apparently not at all in Australia or New Zealand (Robson, 1966); however, one might still expect to find a similar invertebrate predator filling the equivalent ecological niche. To date such predators have been largely undetected in this region, and little is known about the food sources of carnivorous opistho-branchs page 214
Table 1. Records of Predation on Anthozoans by Aeolids in the Northern Hemisphere
Actinia equinaAeolidia papillosaBoutan(1898); Stephenson (1928); Braams and Geelen (1953); den Hartog (1961); Miller (1961); Swennen (1961); Bruce, Colman and Jones (1963); Thompson (1964); Edmunds et al. (1974)
Aeolidiella sanguineaTardy (1969)
Spurilla neapolitanaSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Actinia sp.Aeolidia papillosaFleure and Walton (1907); Eliot (1910)
Actinothoe anguicomaAeolidiella glaucaTardy (1969)
Aeolidiella sanguineaTardy (1969)
Aiptasia mutabilisSpurilla neapolitanaSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Anemonia sulcataAeolidia papillosaMiller (1961); Edmunds et al. (1974)
Spurilla neapolitanaSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Anthea sp.Aeolidia papillosaFleure and Wilton (1907); Eliot (1910)
Anthopleura artemisiaAeolidia papillosaWaters (1973)
Anthopleura elegantissimaAeolidia papillosaFrancis (1973); Waters (1973); Edmunds et al. (1974)
Hermissenda crassicornisFrancis (1973)
Anthopleura nigrescensHerviella sp. nov.Rosin (1969)
Anthopleura xanthogrammicaAeolidia papillosaWaters (1973)
Bunodeopsis sp.Spurilla neapolitanaSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Calliactis effoetaAeolidia papillosaBoutan (1898)
Cerianthus sp.Dendronotus irisWobber (1970)
Cereus pedunculatusAeolidia papillosaBoutan (1898); Tardy (1965)
Aeolidiella alderiTardy (1969)
Aeolidiella glaucaTardy (1965)
Aeolidiella sanguineaTardy (1965, 1969)
Cerberilla bernadettiTardy (1965)page 215
Diadumene cinctaAeolidia papillosaSwennen (1961); Tardy (1965)
Aeolidiella alderiTardy (1969)
Aeolidiella glaucaTardy (1965)
Aeolidiella sanguineaTardy (1965, 1969)
Cerberilla bernadettiTardy (1965)
Diadumene luciaeAeolidia papillosaWaters (1973)
Epiactis proliferaAeolidia papillosaWaters (1973)
Metridium marginatumAeolidia papillosaRussell (1942)
Metridium senileAeolidia papillosaStehouwer (1952); Braams and Geelen (1953); Swennen (1961); Wolter (1967); Harris (1971)
Sagartia elegansAeolidiella glaucaMiller (1961); Bruce, Colman and Jones (1963)
Sagartia troglodytesAeolidia papillosaMiller (1961); Swennen (1961); Tardy (1965)
Aeolidiella glaucaTardy (1965, 1969)
Aeolidiella sanguineaTardy (1965, 1969)
Cerberilla bernadettiTardy (1965)
Sagartia sp.Aeolidiella takanosimensisSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Berghia coerulescensSalvini-Plawen (1972)
Stomphia coccineaAeolidia papillosaRobson (1961)
Aeolidia glaucaMiller (1961)
Tealia coriaceaAeolidia papillosaWaters (1973)
Tealia crassicornisAeolidia papillosaMcMillan (1942); Waters (1973)
Tealia felinaAeolidia papillosaMiller (1961); Swennen (1961)
Table 2. Other Records of Predation on Anthozoans in the Northern Hemisphere*
Actinia equinaNymphon gracile (Pycnogonida: Nymphonidae)Wyer and King (1974)
Pycnogonum littorale (Pycnogonida: Pycnogonidae)Bruce, Colman and Jones (1963); Myer and Buckmann (1963); Wyer and King (1974)
Anemonia sulcataPycnogonum littoraleWyer and King (1974)page 216
Anthopleura elegantissimaCalliostoma annulatum (Gastropoda: Trochidae)Francis (1973)
Dermasterias imbricata (Asteroidea: Poraniidae)Mauzey, Birkeland and Dayton (1968)
Epitonium sp. (Gastropoda: Epitoniidae)Francis (1973)
Patiria miniata (Asteroidea: Asterinidae)Francis (1973)
Pycnogonum stearnsi (Pycnogonida: Pycnogonidae)Fry (1965)
Anthopleura xanthogrammicaDermasterias imbricataMauzey et al. (1968)
Pycnogonum stearnsiFry (1965)
Calliactis parasiticaCrossaster papposus (Asteroidea: Solasteridae)Milligan (1916)
Pycnogonum littoraleWyer and King (1974)
Diadumene sp.Crossaster papposusHancock (1958)
Edwardsia sp.Platichthys flesus (Pisces: Pleuronectidae)McIntosh (1874)
Epiactis proliferaDermasterias imbricataMauzey et al. (1968)
Metridium senileDermasterias imbricataMauzey et al. (1968)
Gephyreaster swifti (Asteroidea: Radiasteridae)Mauzey et al. (1968)
Hippasteria spinosa (Asteroidea: Goniasteridae)Mauzey et al. (1968)
Pycnogonum littoraleMyer and Buckmann (1963)
Peachia hastataGadus callarias (Pisces: Gadidae)McIntosh (1874)
Stoichactis helianthusHermodice carunculata (Polychaeta: Amphinomidae)Lizama and Blanquet (1975)
Stoichactis sp.Acanthaster echinites (Asteroidea: Acanthasteridae)Verwey (1930)
Amphiprion polymnus (Pisces: Pomacentridae)Verwey (1930)
Premnas biaculateus (Pisces: Pomacentridae)Verwey (1930)page 217
Stomphia coccineaCrossaster papposusMauzey et al. (1968)
Gephyreaster swiftiMauzey et al. (1968)
Tealia coriaceaDermasterias imbricataMauzey et al. (1968)
Table 3. Records of Predation on Anthozoans in New Zealand
Anthopleura sp.Rhombosolea plebeia (Pisces: Rhombosoleidae)Webb (1973)
Actinia tenebrosaHaustrum haustorium (Gastropoda: Thaisidae)Author's observation
Pleurobranchaea novaezelandiae (Gastropoda: Pleurobranchidae)Ottaway (1977)
Calliactis conchicolaEmissola antarctica (Selachii: Galeidae)Author's observation
Cricophorus nutrixBaeolidia major (Gastropoda: Aeolidiidae)Morton and Miller (1968)
Paracalliactis rosea Other anthozoans (unidentified)Emissola antarcticaAuthor's observation
Cheilodactylus macropterus (Pisces: Cheilodactylidae)Godfriaux (1974)
Chrysophrys auratus (Pisces: Sparidae)Godfriaux (1970)
Notothenia microlepidota (Pisces: Nototheniidae)Graham (1939)
Parapercis colias (Pisces: Parapercidae)Graham (1939)
Peltorhampus novaezelandiae (Pisces: Rhombosoleidae)Webb (1973)
Rhombosolea leporina (Pisces: Rhombosoleidae)Webb (1973)
Sphaeroides richei (Pisces: Tetraodontidae)Webb (1973)
page 218 here. The note of Morton and Moller (1968), that the aeolid Baeolidia major preys on the anemone Cricophorus nutrix, may have been the first published record of predation on a sea anemone by an invertebrate for these two countries, even though there are over 40 known anthozoan species in New Zealand alone (Parry, 1951). Recently Ottaway (1977) observed that Pleurobranchaea novaezelandiae readily ate the common Actinia tenebrosa during laboratory experiments. A similar opisthobranch, Pleurobranchaea maculata, occurs in Australia, and is known to be ‘a voracious predator of smaller shell-less opisthobranchs’ (Burn, 1966). There is a possibility that P. maculata might also eat anemones.

Few other molluscs have been reported as predators of anemones (Tables 2, 3). Francis (1973) recorded Calliostoma annulatum and Epitonium sp. as predators of Anthopleura elegantissima, but gave no indication of their effect on populations. Fleure and Walton (1907) ‘once noticed Trochus ziziphinus nibbling at the base of an anemone’, and on two occasions I observed Haustrum haustorium to partially eat juvenile Actinia tenebrosa. The two juveniles died as a consequence of the attacks, but it seems unlikely that predation by Haustrum would have any marked effect on Actinia populations.

The polychaete worm Hermodice carunculata is known to be an active predator of Stoichactis helianthus. After a single Hermodice starts feeding on Stoichactis, other worms are attracted to feed on the same anemone. Although it is not known whether the anemones die following such attacks, Hermodice could still affect the local distribution of Stoichactis (Lizama and Blanquet, 1975). A similar situation might exist for pycnogonids. Even though Fry (1965) considered actinians to be the major food source of Pycnogonum stearnsi, it is not known whether predation by sea-spiders would actually kill adult anemones. Stephenson (1928), however, observed that ‘serious results may ensue from such attacks on young or small anemones’, so there is still the possibility that pycnogonids could influence the distribution of some actinian species.

Some starfish are considered to be omnivorous (Feder and Christensen, 1966) and have been observed to eat anemones in an aquarium (Milligan, 1916) and in the sea (Table 2). Verwey (1930) believed that Acanthaster echinites was ‘probably one of the worst enemies of anemones’; however, the first unequivocal indication that actinians can be a significant part of the diet of some asteroids came from the extensive in situ observations of Mauzey, Birkeland and Dayton (1968). They found that, in some habitats, Dermasterias imbricata fed mainly on Epiactis prolifera, and occasionally on Anthopleura xanthogrammica, A. elegantissima, Tealia coriacea and Metridium senile. Other starfish were also seen to eat anemones (Table 2).

Most known vertebrate predators are fish. Over a century ago Peachia hastata had been discovered in cod stomachs, and ‘swarms’ page 219 of an Edwardsia species in flounder stomachs (McIntosh, 1874). Even within symbiotic relationships, damselfish sometimes eat the tentacles of their host anemone, Stoichactis (Verwey, 1930). Several New Zealand fish species ingest anemones (Table 3), although from the two detailed records it seems likely that the anemones may have been ingested incidentally along with other prey. Webb (1973) found that an Anthopleura species constituted up to 4.8% of the gut contents of the sand flounder Rhombosolea plebeia, but the cockle Chione stutchburyi is a significant part of the diet of this flounder, and where the study was done Anthopleura aureoradiata is commonly found attached to the cockle (Parry, 1951). Similarly, 40 Calliactis conchicola and several Paracalliactis rosea were seen in the gut contents of 12 gummy sharks, Emmissola antarctica (= Mustelus antarcticus), caught in 100m of water offshore from Kaikoura (Ottaway, personal observation). At Kaikoura, both anemones are epizoic on the carapaces of the spider crab, Leptomithrax longipipes, and C. conchicola is also found on living whelks, Austrofusus glans, and whelk shells occupied by hermit crabs (Hand, 1975). Every anemone found eaten by the gummy sharks was attached to Leptomithrax, but there were Leptomithrax present in the stomachs that did not bear anemones. Since there were no whelks or hermit crabs ingested, with or without anemones, it seems that the sharks were preying on Leptomithrax rather than the anemones.

Other vertebrate predators seem to be few. At one time the French collected anemones and sold them in Bordeaux markets (Rondeletius, quoted in Johnstone, 1846, p. 227). Dicquemare (1773) actually carried out cautious experiments on the toxicity of cooked actinians, feeding them to his cat and himself. He apparently satisfied himself that some species, especially Tealia crassicornis, were palatable, because later he wrote (Dicquemare, 1775): ‘De toutes les efpeces d'anémones de mer, celle-ci m'a paru devoir mériter la préférence pour la table. Lorfqu'on les a fait bouillir un peu fermes, et qu'on les fert pour manger à quelle fauffe on juge àpropos, …’ Even so, Johnston (1846) had reservations about Dicquemare's opinion: ‘The mouth waters at the liquorish description, … but I have not been tempted to test its truth.’ More recently, Martin (1960) reported that cooked Rhodactis howesii was commonly eaten by Samoans, although fatal cases of poisoning were known to occur amongst those natives who had eaten the anemone raw.


I am indebted to Dr W. C. Clark, Professor G. A. Knox, Professor M. C. Miller and Mr R. C. Willan for their comments and constructive criticisms of the manuscript at various stages of preparation.

This work was supported by a New Zealand Commonwealth Postgraduate Award.

page 220


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Swennen, C., 1961: Data on distribution, reproduction and ecology of the nudibranchiate molluscs occurring in the Netherlands. Netherlands Journal of Sea Research 1: 191-240.

Tardy, J., 1965: Description et biologie de Cerberilla bernadetti espèce nouvelle de Gasteropode Nudibranche de la côte atlantique française. Bulletin de l'Institut Océanographique, Monaco 65: 1-22.

——, 1969: Etude systematique et biologique sur trois espèces d'Aeolidielles de côtes européenes (Gasteropodes, Nudibranches). Bulletin de l'Institut Océanographique, Monaco 68: 1-40.

Thompson, T. E., 1964: Grazing and the life cycles of British nudibranchs. pp. 275-297 in Crisp, D. J. (Ed.), ‘Grazing in Terrestrial and Marine Environments’. Blackwell, Oxford. 322 pp.

Verwey, J., 1930: Coral reef studies. 1. The symbiosis between damselfishes and sea anemones in Batavia Bay. Treubia 12: 305-354.

Waters, V. L., 1973: Food-preference of the nudibranch Aeolidia papillosa, and the effect of the defenses of the prey on predation. Veliger 15: 174-192.

Webb. B. F., 1973: Fish populations of the Avon-Heathcote estuary: 3. Gut contents. N.Z. Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 7: 223-224.

Wobber, D. R., 1970: A report on the feeding of Dendronotus iris on the anthozoan Cerianthus sp. from Monterey Bay, California. Veliger 12: 383-387.

Wolter, H., 1967: Beitrage zur biologie, histologie und sinnesphysiologie (inbesondere der chemorezeption) einiger nudibranchier (Mollusca, Opisthobranchia) der Nordsee. Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Okologie der Tiere 60: 275-337.

Wyer, D., and King, P. E., 1974: Feeding in British littoral pycnogonids. Estuarine and Coastal Marine Studies 2: 177-184.

* Further references to associations of pycnogonids and anthozoans are listed in Helfer and Schlottke (1935), Hedgpeth (1949), and Wyer and King (1974).