Sea urchins have no manners

On Monday of this week (today is Thursday) I was transferring my baby urchins into clean bowls as I always do on Mondays, and for some crazy reason decided that I needed to measure all 300+ of them. I don't remember how the details of how this decision came about, but it probably went something like this:

  • Me #1:  You know, we should probably measure these guys. We do want to see how fast they're growing, after all.
  • Me #2:  Are you kidding? Do you know how long it's going to take to measure 300 urchins under the microscope? We don't have that kind of time today!
  • Me #1:  Oh, come on, don't be so lazy. How long can it take, really? Let's do it for science!
  • Me #2:  These things always take twice as long as you think they will.
  • Me #1:  It's not as though you have anything better to do this afternoon. I mean, aside from writing a final exam and grading all those research papers you assigned.

Three-and-a-half hours later, Me #2 was soundly kicking Me #1 in the butt and we were all tired. But the urchins got measured and now I have some baseline data so I can track further growth. And, no, I don't have the urchins separated into individual containers so I won't be following individual growth, but will be able to calculate average growth rates across the cohort.

Having to look at each urchin long enough to get it lined up with the ocular micrometer in the dissecting scope gave me a chance to observe how their colors are developing. In the field, urchins of this species (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) in this size range (mm-3 cm) are usually greenish in color; when these individuals are brought into the lab they turn purple as they continue to grow. I seem to recall that my last batch of lab-grown urchins (in Spring 2012) didn't go through that green phase as juveniles, at least not as vibrantly as what we see in the field. So while I was holding down the current batch of urchins to measure them, I noted their color.

Some of them have a definite green tinge at the base of the spines, which then fades to a mauve-y purple towards the tips. The green coloration is most evident on the younger spines:

Strongylocentrotus purpuratus juvenile, age 118 days. This individual has a test diameter of 2.7 mm. 18 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Strongylocentrotus purpuratus juvenile, age 118 days. This individual has a test diameter of 2.7 mm. 18 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

In addition to giving the urchins something more substantial than scum to eat, having them on coralline rocks gives me a chance to see some of the other critters that live on the rocks. This particular rock is inhabited by a number of spirorbid polychaete worms that build tiny circular tubes made of calcium carbonate, as well as assorted small barnacles cemented to the rock and other crustaceans crawling around.

This is a close-up shot of one of the spirorbid worms. The tube is entirely covered by pink coralline alga, but the worm's orange tentacular crown and trumpet-shaped operculum (used to close the tube when the worm withdraws) are extended as the worm filter-feeds:

Spirorbid polychaete worm on coralline rock, 18 May 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Spirorbid polychaete worm on coralline rock, 18 May 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Another photogenic animal that I happened to find was a very small chiton. By the time I found it after measuring all the urchins I didn't have the brain energy to try and key it out; if I can find it again once I've finished grading final exams I'll give it a shot. It is extremely cute, with its bright blue spots, and was very slowly creeping around on the rock when one of the urchins barged in and ran right over it:

The chiton is probably about 4 mm long, just a bit longer than the urchin's test diameter. To the urchin, walking over a chiton isn't much different from walking over a rock; and while the chiton probably doesn't like being walked on it isn't significantly affected by the incident unless the urchin starts gnawing on it. Chitons are the masters of just hunkering down and waiting for things to get better, whether that means the tide coming back or an uncouth urchin moving along and minding its own business.

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