Sea urchins are as sinister as they seem. Ten years in the past, in California’s huge, wavy kelp, sea urchins began to eat and breed, and eat and breed, and over seven years destroyed many of the underwater forests. Then they settled on the ground of their wasteland, forming spiny purple carpets, clicking urchin barrens alongside 150km of shoreline. A serious marine heatwave had broken the kelp and a “sea star wasting syndrome” killed the urchins’ fundamental predator, sunflower sea stars.
Might they be eaten by us or by otters? They may not. They’d entered a zombie state and contained little or no uni, the wealthy meat contained in the urchin’s shell. And they’re ready to remain that approach: dormant, alone – till they spot any kelp sprout that dares to breed out of the lifeless land and eat it earlier than one other urchin can. They’re methodology actors performing The Waste Land, and we’re college students in an English lesson late on a scorching afternoon, making an attempt not to go to sleep as we hearken to the poet’s voice on the scratchy recording, a recording that sounds prefer it was made in a room stuffed with urchins, faintly clicking their spines:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches develop
Out of this stony garbage? Son of man,
You can’t say, or guess, for you understand solely
A heap of damaged photographs, the place the solar beats,
And the lifeless tree offers no shelter, the cricket no aid,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Urchins eat by scraping and grinding their 5 jaws, that are organized in a form that Aristotle described as a “lantern”, however which he ought to have referred to as a “horrible beak”. Their inner skeleton is named a “test”. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes sea urchins as having a “radial arrangement of organs”.
They’ve tubular toes (which some urchins, when they’re in shallow water, use to create hats out of seaweed or shell to guard them from the solar – it’s really fairly candy, however don’t let it idiot you). Between their spines, they’ve pincers, which they use to preen themselves or pinch bits off predators. After they transfer, they seem like rolling utilizing their spines, however they’re really transferring utilizing many tiny suckers, which attain out and pull them ahead.
A child sea urchin resembles a virus. The urchin form grows inside and when it’s time, it turns itself inside out – “like a sock”, a PBS documentary describes it, earlier than letting you understand that urchins can dwell for hundreds of years and are “practically immortal”.
However not understanding any of this, we nonetheless in some way really feel when of their presence that they’re worse than the spikes. That there’s a cause the identify “sea hedgehogs” didn’t stick. That they’re highly effective. That they’ve a darkness. (Or is it simply the anus on their heads?)
I first knew sea urchins by their shells and didn’t realise for years that the gorgeous inexperienced and the gorgeous form of the objects on my grandmother’s mantlepiece had been the identical issues that made my coronary heart beat barely quicker within the sea.
Helen Sullivan is a Guardian journalist. Her first guide, a memoir referred to as Freak of Nature, shall be revealed in 2024