Crinoids, also known as sea lilies or feather-stars, are marine animals that make up the class Crinoidea of the echinoderms (phylum Echinodermata). They live both in shallow water and in depths as great as 6,000 meters. Crinoids are characterized by a mouth on the top surface that is surrounded by feeding arms. They have a U-shaped gut, and their anus is located next to the mouth. Although the basic echinoderm pattern of five-fold symmetry can be recognized, most crinoids have many more than five arms. Crinoids usually have a stem used to attach themselves to a substrate, but many live attached only as juveniles and become free-swimming as adults. There are only a few hundred known modern forms, but crinoids were much more numerous both in species and numbers in the past. Some thick limestone beds dating to the mid- to late-Paleozoic are entirely made up of disarticulated crinoid fragments.
Crinoids comprise three basic sections; the stem, the calyx, and the arms. The stem is composed of highly porous ossicles which are filled with muscular tissue. The Calyx contains the crinoid's digestive and reproductive organs, and the mouth is located at the top of the dorsal cup, while the anus is located peripheral to it. The brachials(arms) display pentameral symmetry and comprise smaller ossicles than the stem and are equipped with cirri which facilitate feeding by moving the organic media down the arm and into the mouth.
In 2005, a stalked crinoid was recorded pulling itself along the sea floor off the Grand Bahama Island. While it has been known that stalked crinoids move, prior to this recording the fastest motion of a crinoid was 0.6 meters/hour (2 ft/h). The 2005 recording showed a crinoid moving at 140 meters/hour (460 ft/h).
The earliest known crinoids come from the Ordovician. They are thought to have evolved from primitive echinoderms known as Eocystoids. Confusingly, another early group of echinoderms were also the Eocrinoids, but that group is currently thought to be an ancestor of blastoids rather than of crinoids.
The crinoids underwent two periods of abrupt adaptive radiation; the first during the Ordovician, the other after they underwent a selective mass extinction at the end of the Permian period. This Triassic radiation resulted in forms possessing flexible arms becoming widespread; motility, predominantly a response to predation pressure, also became far more prevalent. After the end-Permian extinction, crinoids never regained the morphological disparity they enjoyed in the Paleozoic; they occupied a different region of morphospace, employing different ecological strategies to those that had proven so successful in the Paleozoic.
The long and varied geological history of the crinoids demonstrates how well the echinoderms have adapted to filter-feeding. The fossils of other stalked filter-feeding echinoderms, such as blastoids, are also found in the rocks of the Palaeozoic era. These extinct groups can exceed the crinoids in both numbers and variety in certain horizons. However, none of these others survived the crisis at the end of the Permian period.
Some fossil crinoids, such as Pentacrinites, seem to have lived attached to floating driftwood and complete colonies are often found. Sometimes this driftwood would become waterlogged and sink to the bottom, taking the attached crinoids with it. The stem of Pentacrinites can be several metres long. Modern relatives of Pentacrinites live in gentle currents attached to rocks by the end of their stem, which is fairly short. The largest fossil crinoid on record had a stem 40 m (130 ft) in length.
In 2006, geologists isolated complex organic molecules from 350-million-year-old fossils of crinoids -- the oldest such molecules yet found. Christina O'Malley, a doctoral student in earth sciences at Ohio State University, found orange and yellow organic molecules inside the fossilized remains of several species of crinoids dating back to the Mississippian period.