Sea Urchins Common on Coast
A. Our best bet is that it's a sea urchin. Surprisingly, sea urchins are related to sea stars and sand dollars.
Two types of urchins are common in our waters; the purple urchin with long spines, and the white urchin with short spines. The spines aren't venomous, and serve mainly to protect and aide the urchin wedging itself securely into cracks and crevices.
Urchins move on hundreds of tiny tube feet. They live in rocky outcrops, tidal pools, jetties, pilings, seaweed and eel grass beds. They can also be found in deep water and are frequently hauled up in fishermen's nets. They move slowly and graze on algae, small invertebrates and carrion.
Beneath the urchin's prickly armor is an intricate shell, visible only after the animal has died and its spines have fallen off. Called a "test," the shell is beautifully designed with small, perfectly aligned, raised circles and five equally-spaced elongated triangles. The raised circles are where the spines attach. The tiny holes in the circles are where the hundreds of thread-like tube feet protrude. The tube feet operate on a suction principal. This makes for slow going, but the strong grip of the hundreds of feet can hold the urchin fast, even in strong currents.
The urchin's mouth is on the bottom of its shell, surrounded by a small ring of soft tissue. Resembling a small beak, the mouth consists of five small teeth. The teeth scrape minute plants and animals from rocks, shells and other solid surfaces. The hole in the top of the shell is for excreting waste.
Many animals prey on sea urchins, including sea stars, conchs, oystercatchers, gulls, crabs and fish. Humans also have a taste for urchins in the form of roe. The roe is eaten raw and is highly prized in the Orient as a gourmet food.
Information provided by the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The state operates three public aquariums; one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island. The aquariums are administered by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and are designed to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina's aquatic environment.
For more information about the Aquariums, visit www.ncaquariums.com, or call 800-832-FISH.
Sherry White works in public relations for the N.C. Aquariums.
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