The Surprising Importance of Ocean Invertebrates


Table of Contents

Exploring the Hidden World of Invertebrates: Unveiling the Marvels of the Spineless

Introduction to Animal Visualization

I would like you to visualize an animal. What animal do you see? Just shout it out:- Importance of Ocean Invertebrates

Examples of Common Animals

Flamingo. Squirrel. More. Dog. Cat. Giraffe. Thank you. Thank you. What a wonderful list.

Observing a Bias in Animal Selection

Do you maybe notice a certain bias? Most of the animals I just called out have eyes like us. They have bones and spines and vertebrae like us. These are all vertebrae species, just like us.

Invertebrate Significance

The Diversity of the Animal Kingdom

Animal species
Animal species

And statistically, that’s a little strange. Given that the bony species, the vertebrates, are only 2% of the whole animal kingdom. Most of the millions of animal species are invertebrates.

Characteristics of Invertebrates

all animal species
all animal species

These are the species without backbones. In fact, they have no bones at all. These are the spineless, boneless creatures like spiders, insects, snails, worms, shrimp, sponges, corals, sea stars. I mean, the list goes on and on.

Recognizing Our Blind Spot

And what amazes me is that we seem to have a blind spot for such a huge portion of the biodiversity while we depend on this very beautiful diversity of species every day.

Mission and Purpose

Mission to Promote Invertebrate Awareness

My mission is to open up this wondrous and vertebrate world. And my hope is that you will start looking out for the spineless, boneless creatures that are part of your reality. Let’s celebrate the invertebrate.

Definition and Importance of the Term “Invertebrate”


Now, invertebrate, it’s not a very common word. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as an animal lacking a spinal column. And I’m going to be using this word a lot. And my hope is that you will too, after my talk.

Engaging the Audience

So let’s just say it one time together. I’ll start: invertebrate. Wonderful. Now let’s start our spineless adventure.

Superpowers of Invertebrates

Extraordinary Abilities of Invertebrates

So I want to start out with the superpowers that invertebrates can have. Just to name three: immortality, switching gender, and harnessing the power of light.

Examples of Invertebrate Abilities

eternal jellyfish
eternal jellyfish

The eternal jellyfish, pardon me, the immortal jellyfish, has found eternal life by continuously regenerating itself.

Sea Stars
Sea Stars

Sea stars, like many other animal species, transition from male to female or vice versa. And many invertebrates have been able to manipulate light to create their own personal disco.

Sea Animals
Sea Animals

They probably do this to ward off predators or to lure in food.

Survival Tactics in the Wild

And invertebrates have found so many awesomely spectacular ways to survive in this wild world. Now, the majority of the animal kingdom are boneless, spineless species. But it’s okay if you said cat, dog, or some other bony animal at the start to my question. Because these are the familiar species, and we do tend to have a bias towards the familiar. And I totally had the same.

Personal Journey

My Journey into Marine Biology

Now, I’m a professor in tropical marine biodiversity, which means that I’m a marine biologist and I study life in the sea. And people often ask me how I came to marine biology. And my mom kind of always jokes that I could swim before I could speak. And yeah, basically from a very young age, I’ve been mesmerized by all the creatures in the sea.

Influence of Graffiti

And the reason for that in part, I think, is graffiti. Because growing up in Amsterdam in the 1980s, the vibrant colors of graffiti were the decor to everyday life. And so what you see here is something a graffiti artist that sprayed on our house and what’s what I passed every day for many years.

Underwater Exploration

So when I got my first goggles and looked underwater,


I felt instantly at home. Underwater life was equally vibrant, colorful, and a little bit crazy. And what struck my curiosity as a kid still drives my research.

Understanding Marine Life

Questions that Drive My Research

Because when I look at all the diversity of species underwater, I wonder, how did they all come together? What keeps them in place? And how do they change in response to, or how do they adapt to changes in their environment, particularly changes caused by us?

Aim of My Research

And then I take that information, and I try to understand how we can better protect life in the sea. Now by the time I became a marine scientist, I thought I was pretty open-minded.

fish swimming
fish swimming

But I too was very biased towards all the animals with the eyes and the bones.

Shift in Focus

And my first dives I was mostly preoccupied by all the fish swimming around. And quite frankly, I used to think that the sea floor, the sea bottom, was just an amorphous background for the true star of the show, sea turtles. But that all changed when I embarked on a sponge project as a student.

Discovery of Sponges

Unexpected Journey into Sponges

sea turtle
sea turtle

Now, all the sea turtle projects were already taken, and sponges were kind of what was left.

underwater of sea
underwater of sea

And honestly, I didn’t entirely know what a sponge was. So there I am as a student, staring at the amorphous background, counting sponges.

Learning About Sponges

Sea Animal's life
Sea Animal’s life

But then after a few dives, I start recognizing species, and I start seeing sponges in all kinds of shapes and forms, and in all kinds of colors. And the more I see, the more I learn.

Importance of Sponges

Because these sponges, they’re attached to the sea floor. They’re not going anywhere. But they’re very far from passive. Do you know that sponges can pump up to 50,000 times their own volume in sea water every day? And while they’re pumping all that water, they’re filtering out the microbes and the dirt and in turn provide food for other organisms.

Appreciation of Marine Life

The Transformation of the Sea Floor

So without sponges, without the vacuum cleaners of the sea, the sea would probably look very, very different, probably a little bit dirtier. And what’s striking is that within less than a week of this project, the sea floor had transformed from anonymously uninteresting to an endless diversity of wonder.

Beyond the Sea Turtles

And so yes, the sea turtle is spectacular. And the background is full of amazing diversity that does equally deserve our attention. So here were all these thousands of animals.

Sea Turtles
Sea Turtles

They’d always been there. They’d always been doing their amazing things in quite conspicuous colors. But I’d never seen them.

Sea Animals
Sea Animals

Shifting Focus and Learning More

And then with just a little bit of time and a little shift of focus, I was able to see them. But it made me wonder, what else was I not seeing? And the answer? A lot.

Marine Biodiversity

The Vast Unknown of Marine Life

Over two thirds of the earth is covered by sea water, yet less than one third of marine species have been described. That means that about 70% of marine life is unknown.

Ocean of earth
Ocean of earth
Marine Species
Marine Species

And of that unknown biodiversity, mostly they are invertebrates. So there is so much sea. We do not see.

Exploring Marine Lakes

And that became apparent for me when I started working on marine lakes. Now marine lakes are islands of sea.

islands of sea
islands of sea

And here you see a nice example from Indonesia, where I do much of my work with a wonderful team of Indonesian and Dutch students and researchers.

Discovering New Species

And working on marine lakes means climbing through the jungle with your dive gear on.


And then ultimately jumping into these magical lakes where we document the diversity of species. And what we discovered was that about a quarter of the animals in these lakes have not been found anywhere else. So these are marine invertebrates new to science.

Golden Jellyfish

Special Invertebrate Discovery

Golden jellyfish
Golden jellyfish

And one very special invertebrate, that’s very special to my heart, is the golden jellyfish. Some marine lakes are filled with millions of golden jellyfish as you see here.

Changing Perceptions of Jellyfish

And in the past, the idea of swimming amongst swarms of jellyfish would have been my greatest nightmare. I kind of hated jellyfish, and particularly their stings, possibly some of you can relate to that. But my hate dissolved because I learned why they sting. It’s not to attack us. It’s just to catch food and to protect themselves.

Understanding and Appreciating Invertebrates

Because when you learn to really see the species and understand how they operate in this world, get a sense of their reality. You can even learn to appreciate the ones that you used to see as monsters. Because I think we need a shift in narrative about invertebrates. Either we ignore them, and there is no narrative, or if we do see them, like the jellyfish, or the creepy crawlies, we tend to detest them.

Changing Narratives

Negative Connotations of “Spineless”

Even the term spineless, it has a negative meaning. I mean, if someone says to you that you have no backbone, that’s not a compliment.

Definition and Perception


And at the start, I gave you the first entry of the definition of invertebrate. Here’s the second one: Lacking in strength or vitality, weak. Yeah. So that’s how we perceive 98% of the animal kingdom.

Rethinking Our Views

By now, maybe you’re thinking, all right, that’s not very polite of us. But why does this matter? Why is this a problem? And why should you care about invertebrates?

Importance of Invertebrates

David Attenborough’s Quote

David Attenborough's Quote
David Attenborough’s Quote

Let me switch it around with a quote from David Attenborough. If we and the other backbone animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.

Crucial Roles of Invertebrates

The spineless creatures are what we rely on for the fundamentals of our life. They are a crucial part of the food chain, they pollinate our crops, they fertilize our soils, and they have many other essential functions, both on land and in the sea.

See More  “Best Simple Things That Make You Happier”

Medical and Environmental Contributions

And in the sea invertebrates, for example, produce chemical compounds that can be sources for medicine, such as against cancer, as antibiotics, and anyone who has cold sores probably uses a cream with an antiviral agent that was first derived from sponges.

Dependency on Marine Life

Importance of Marine Life

And all of us, regardless of where we live, depend on life in the sea. Because 50 to 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced by sea organisms.

Misconceptions About Oxygen

And some of you might be thinking, wait, oxygen, isn’t that from the forests? Yes, and the sea. So the sea is a huge, crucial part of our life support system. That means that every breath you take, you should be a little bit grateful to the sea.

Recent Discoveries

And what’s crazy is that it was only about in the 80s that it was discovered that a large portion of that oxygen is produced by sea organisms. So humans had been very happily breathing for many thousands of years without really knowing where their oxygen came from. Think about that.

Call to Action

Importance of Marine Conservation

We rely on life in the sea for the most fundamental aspects of our own life. And there probably are many other services that the sea provides that make our life possible that we currently are not aware of.

Need for Careful Consideration

I would say that’s good enough reason to be careful with all life in our ocean, including the invertebrates. But we’re not that careful. And we’re not that caring. We ignore invertebrates in most of our education. We don’t do a lot of research on them. And most of our conservation is focused on the bony animals.

Different Conservation Needs

bony animals
bony animals

And that’s problematic because the spineless, boneless creatures have found different solutions to life. They react differently to disturbances and they may have different conservation needs. But we will ignore invertebrates at our own peril.

Optimism for the Future

Hope for Biodiversity

And my aim here is not to talk doom scenarios. I mean, yes, the things we do on land, in the sea, and in the air have caused great losses in biodiversity. But my aim here, what is important for me is that you understand that this is not a lost cause, that there is still so much biodiversity out there.


And what’s out there, we need to protect and to celebrate.

Importance of Exploration

And it’s so important to go out there and explore because exploration will lead to a better understanding of the world that we are a part of.


And you don’t have to be a scientist to see the wonders and vertebrate world that’s right outside your doorstep. Maybe along the road, in a tree, in a stream, or maybe even in the sea.

Shift in Focus

Because to tackle our blind spots, all we need is just a little bit of time and a little shift in focus.

Sea animal
Sea animal

So let’s have that shift in focus. Let’s bring the invertebrates from the fuzzy background to the forefront. Let’s make the superheroes of our nature visible. Let’s celebrate the invertebrate.

FAQs on the Importance of Ocean Invertebrates

What are ocean invertebrates?

Ocean invertebrates are animals that live in marine environments and lack a vertebral column (backbone). This diverse group includes species such as corals, jellyfish, mollusks (like octopuses, squids, and snails), crustaceans (such as crabs, lobsters, and shrimp), and echinoderms (like starfish and sea urchins). They play crucial roles in the ocean ecosystem, contributing to the complexity and health of marine habitats.

Why are ocean invertebrates important for the ecosystem?

The importance of ocean invertebrates lies in their multifaceted roles within marine ecosystems. They are integral to food webs, serving as both predators and prey, thus maintaining ecological balance. Ocean invertebrates contribute to nutrient cycling, breaking down organic material and releasing nutrients back into the environment. They also provide habitat structures, such as coral reefs, which support a vast array of marine life. Their activities help sustain the overall health and productivity of the oceans.

How do ocean invertebrates contribute to biodiversity?

Ocean invertebrates are a major component of marine biodiversity. They represent the majority of marine species and exhibit a wide range of forms, behaviors, and ecological functions. The importance of ocean invertebrates in biodiversity includes their roles in forming habitats (e.g., coral reefs and oyster beds), supporting complex food webs, and facilitating symbiotic relationships with other marine organisms. Their diversity helps ensure ecosystem resilience and adaptability to environmental changes.

What are the main threats to ocean invertebrates?

The primary threats to ocean invertebrates include pollution, climate change, and overfishing. Pollution, such as plastic debris and chemical contaminants, can harm or kill invertebrates. Climate change affects them through ocean acidification, which impairs shell formation in species like mollusks, and warming waters, which can lead to habitat loss and shifts in species distribution. Overfishing can deplete populations of commercially valuable invertebrates and disrupt ecological balance. Understanding the importance of ocean invertebrates highlights the need for addressing these threats to protect marine biodiversity.

How can we protect ocean invertebrates?

Protecting ocean invertebrates involves several strategies, including establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), enforcing sustainable fishing practices, reducing pollution, and mitigating climate change impacts. MPAs provide safe havens where invertebrate populations can thrive without human interference. Sustainable fishing practices ensure that invertebrate species are harvested at sustainable levels. Reducing pollution through waste management and regulation of harmful substances can significantly improve the health of marine environments. Addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical for preserving the habitats and environmental conditions that support the importance of ocean invertebrates.

What are some examples of ocean invertebrates?

Examples Importance of Ocean Invertebrates include:

  • Corals: Form the backbone of coral reefs, supporting diverse marine life.
  • Jellyfish: Play roles in nutrient cycling and as prey for larger species.
  • Octopuses: Known for their intelligence and adaptability.
  • Shrimp: Important in the food chain and for human consumption.
  • Sea Urchins: Contribute to controlling algae populations on reefs.

Each of these species illustrates the importance of ocean invertebrates in maintaining the structure and function of marine ecosystems.

By understanding and valuing the importance of ocean invertebrates, we can take informed actions to protect these vital creatures and the ecosystems they support.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here