Under various circumstances the tentacular crown of some sabellid polychaetes becomes detached from the body. Separation occurs always at a preestablished zone of abscission at the base of the crown. We used electron microscopy to study the abscission zone of Sabella penicillus, both in specimens whose crown was intact and in those whose crown had separated.
The abscission zone is within the intermediate layer, between the crown skeleton and the body wall musculature, and only structures supported by the crown skeleton separate from the animal's body. Abscission involves a rupture of the paramyosin muscle cells which form bridges connecting extensions from the epimysium of the body wall musculature and from the cartilage matrix of the crown. After abscission the anterior and posterior ends of the cells remain in place on the crown and body respectively.
Sabella penicillus appears able to control the loss of its tentacular crown, so this abscission is a kind of autotomy. Under some circumstances autotomy of the crown may permit escape or confer some surgical benefit to the animal. Using standard histology we found the same anatomical provision for crown abscission in a variety of sabellids. We conclude that differences in their capacities to autotomize the crown have a behavioral/physiological basis rather than an anatomical one.