BackgroundFor echinoderms with feeding larvae, metamorphic and post-settlement success may be highly dependent on larval nutrition and the accumulation of energetic lipids from the diet. In contrast to the sea urchins, starfish and brittle stars within the Phylum Echinodermata, sea cucumber metamorphosis does not involve formation of a juvenile rudiment, but instead there is a rearrangement of the entire larval body. Successful metamorphosis in sea cucumbers is often associated with the presence in the late auricularia stage of an evolutionary novelty, the hyaline spheres (HS), which form in the base of the larval arms. Known since the 1850s the function of these HS has remained enigmatic—suggestions include assistance with flotation, as an organizer for ciliary band formation during metamorphosis and as a nutrient store for metamorphosis.ResultsHere using multiple methodologies (lipid mapping, resin-section light microscopy, lipid and fatty acid analyses) we show definitively that the HS are used to store neutral lipids that fuel the process of metamorphosis in Australostichopus mollis. Neutral lipids derived from the phytoplankton diet are transported by secondary mesenchyme cells (“lipid transporting cells”, LTC), likely as free fatty acids or lipoproteins, from the walls of the stomach and intestine through the blastocoel to the HS; here, they are converted to triacylglycerol with a higher saturated fatty acid content. During metamorphosis the HS decreased in size as the triacylglycerol was consumed and LTC again transported neutral lipids within the blastocoel.ConclusionThe HS in A. mollis functions as a nutrient storage structure that separates lipid stores from the major morphogenic events that occur during the metamorphic transition from auricularia–doliolaria–pentactula (settled juvenile). The discovery of LTC within the blastocoel of sea cucumbers has implications for other invertebrate larvae with a gel-filled blastocoel and for our understanding of lipid use during metamorphosis in marine invertebrates.