Abstract Aspidochirote holothurians found on tropical reef flats feed on particulate deposits which form a variety of substrata. The synaptid holothurian Opheodesoma grisea (Semper) feeds in a similar manner by scraping deposits from the surfaces of sea grasses. Distributional and gut content analyses showed that species partitioning is on the basis of substratum and particle size preference. Scanning electron microscopy revealed that the tentacles of aspidochirotes have a nodular surface while those of O. grisea have a tessellated surface structure. The twelve different species examined were shown to have different tentacular surface textures which bore an apparent relationship with the mean particle sizes selected by the different species. Light microscope studies of tentacle sections confirmed earlier observations on the extent of the water vascular system in aspidochirote and pinnate tentacles. From these observations a functional interpretation is proposed for tentacular operation and the means of particle selection in such holothurians.