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We humans use the term "hitting the wall" when we find ourselves in situations in which progress is elusive despite extreme effort. For endurance athletes or anyone doing any serious physical training it can mean not being able to break one's personal best time for a race, or not being able to continue getting measurably stronger. For me, it felt as though much of graduate school involved hitting various hard walls and coming up with a headache. Maybe it's like that for everyone, but from the perspective inside my own head it sure did seem that I was struggling harder than most.

Sometimes the wall is literal rather than figurative. And for small animals, a surface that we might be able to break through without any effort at all (or without even perceiving it as a surface) can be an impenetrable barrier. The biggest of my baby sea urchins has a test diameter of ~2700 µm now; including spines it probably measures a bit bigger than 3 mm across. While tiny urchins can use the surface tension at the air-water interface to crawl, this big guy is too heavy now to stick to the underside and would fall off of it.

However, I thought this urchin might be able to use the surface tension of a water bubble to grab onto and right itself. A hypothesis like this requires empirical data, so I picked up the little urchin and plopped it, oral side up (so, upside-down), in a bubble of water on a depression slide. As I expected, the urchin crawled over to the edge of the bubble and I could see its tube feet attaching to the underside of the surface tension. Watch here:

I watched continuously for about a minute, and the urchin never did figure out how to turn itself over. I think there may be two reasons for this:

  1. The water bubble at the edge of the depression in the slide was very shallow, probably not deep enough to cover the whole animal for the few seconds that it would be positioned on its edge. If, to the animal, the surface tension proved to be impenetrable, then a comparable situation would be for me to pin you, lying on your side sandwiched between a solid wall in front of you and a hard board against your back, then telling you to roll over. You wouldn't be able to do it, either.
  2. The surface tension of the bubble may simply not have been firm enough for the urchin to grab it and pull. Urchins use their tube feet to pull against hard objects, and adults can actually generate enough leverage to push bricks around. Obviously, it's easier to pull (or push) hard against a solid surface (say, a rock or the side of a glass bowl) than a malleable one such as the inner surface of a bubble.

Now, I'm not by any means an expert in biomechanics, but it seems pretty clear to me that the surface tension is either too hard or too soft to be used by an urchin this size to right itself. Smaller urchins would just crawl on the underside of the surface tension until they reached the side or bottom of the container, and larger urchins would push right through it to reach for whatever was on the other side. I may need to do some more experiments with these urchins and bubbles of various sizes.

Just for fun I took another video of the same animal, this time situated upright. It was much happier this way.

See?  It has pedicellariae in addition to spines and tube feet. It's also getting easier to distinguish the ambulacral and interambulacral areas. These urchins are already starting to develop some purple coloration. Typically they go through a greenish stage before turning purple; maybe that will come later. We'll have to see.

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