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Imagine spending your entire life up in the water column as a creature of the plankton. You use cilia to swim but are more or less blown about by the currents, never (hopefully!) encountering a hard surface, and feeding on phytoplankton and other particulate matter suspended in the water. Then, several weeks into your life's adventure, you fall out of the plankton, dismantle your body while simultaneously building a new one, and about a day later have to begin walking using anatomical structures that you didn't have 24 hours earlier. Not only that, but the food that you've been eating your entire life is no longer available to you, for you no longer possess the apparatus that can capture it. And, finally, your body symmetry makes a wholescale change from bilateral to pentaradial--just think of what that means in terms of how your body is oriented and moves through three-dimensional space. That's what metamorphosis is like for sea urchins and many other echinoderms.

The objects of my complete and utter obsession for the past month and a half have started metamorphosing from small larvae into tiny urchins. When I did my daily check yesterday I had two that had completed metamorphosis since the previous day. One of them still had a bit of puffiness on the aboral surface, which I think may be the very last remnants of the larval body. This little guy has only its first five tube feet, from the juvenile rudiment of the competent larva.

Newly metamorphosed juvenile urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), 11 March 2015. Age = 50 days. ©Allison J. Gong
Newly metamorphosed juvenile urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), age 50 days, 11 March 2015. 
© Allison J. Gong

Its companion in metamorphosis was a bit farther along in terms of development; while it still had only the first five tube feet, it has more spines:

Juvenile sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), 11 March 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Juvenile sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), age 50 days, 11 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

But just having feet doesn't mean you automatically know how to walk with them, and it's no easier for these guys than it is for humans. It's probably more difficult, actually, because the urchins have to coordinate movement of five appendages simultaneously. They typically pick up one or two tube feet from the same side of the body and wave them around until one of them randomly sticks to something. Then they remain stretched out until the tube feet on the opposite side of the body let go. Well, you can watch for yourself; this is the same individual that is in the top photo above:

Being a bit farther along in the developmental process means having more spines, but not necessarily any more coordination. I watched the second urchin for several minutes, and while it repeatedly detached and re-attached tube feet, it didn't actually go anywhere. Here's a short clip:

It's amazing how quickly they learn, though. When I go to the lab to look at them tomorrow, they'll be running around as though they've been ambulatory their entire lives. Which, in a peculiar sense, depending on when you start counting, maybe they have.

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After much teasing and titillation, my urchin larvae have finally gotten down to the serious business of metamorphosis. It seems that I had jumped the gun on proclaiming them competent about a week ago, or maybe they were indeed competent and just needed to wait for some exogenous cue to commit to leaving the plankton for good. In any case, I've spent much of the last five days or so watching and photographing the larvae to document the progress of metamorphosis as it occurs. While I was unable to follow any individual larva through the entire process of metamorphosis, I did manage to put together a series of photographs that document the sequence of events.

To recap: A competent larva is anatomically and physiologically prepared to undergo metamorphosis. This batch of larvae reached competence at the age of about 45 days. The larva below is very dense and opaque in the main body. It can still swim, but has become "sticky" and tends to sit on the bottom of the dish.

Competent pluteus larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, 6 March 2015. ©Allison J. Gong
Competent pluteus larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, age 45 days, 6 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Sometimes the first tube feet emerge from the larva while it is still planktonic. Other times the larva falls to the benthos and lands on its (usually) left side, where the rudiment is located.

This larva is lying on its right side, so the tube feet are sticking straight up out of the plane of view. You can clearly see two of them, though.

Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, 8 March 2015. Age = 47 days. ©Allison J. Gong
Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, age 47 days, 8 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

Just for kicks, here's the same larva, photographed with dark-field lighting. This kind of light illuminates the surface of the object being viewed, which is very helpful when the subject is opaque, making it possible to see four tube feet in this picture.

Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, photographed with dark-field lighting, 8 March 2015.  ©Allison J. Gong
Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, photographed with dark-field lighting, age 47 days. 8 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

As the tube feet are emerging from the juvenile rudiment, the larval body contracts and gets denser. The arms shrink and the internal skeletal rods that supported them are discarded. At this stage the larval juvenile (larvenile? juvenal?) begins to crawl around on the bottom. The ciliated band that used to propel it through the water and create the feeding current may still be beating, but eventually will stop, as the larvenile will no longer need it. This is usually the time that I see the first spines waving around; it's interesting to note that tube feet, which originate from the inside of the animal, come first, then are followed by spines. Then again, the spines are part of the animal's endoskeleton, so maybe it's not so noteworthy after all.

Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, showing spines and tube feet, 9 March 2015. Age = 48 days. ©Allison J. Gong
Metamorphosing larva of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, showing spines and tube feet, age 48 days. 9 March 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

So they're getting close to becoming real urchins! Next up: Learning to walk.

Did you notice that I invented a new word? I'm going to start using it regularly.

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