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Inhabitants of the Red Sea - Sea urchin

Sea urchins or urchins are small, spiny, globular animals which, with their close kin, such as sand dollars, constitute the class Echinoidea of the echinoderm  phylum. They inhabit all oceans. Their shell, or "test", is round and spiny, typically from 3 to 10 centimetres (1.2 to 3.9 in) across. Common colors include black and dull shades of green, olive, brown, purple, and red. They move slowly, feeding mostly on algae. Sea otters, wolf eels, and other predators feed on them. Humans harvest them and serve their gonads as a delicacy.

The name urchin is an old name for the round spiny hedgehogs that sea urchins resemble.

Sea urchins are members of the phylum Echinodermata, which also includes sea stars, sea cucumbers, brittle stars, and crinoids. Like other echinoderms they have fivefold symmetry (called pentamerism) and move by means of hundreds of tiny, transparent, adhesive "tube feet". The symmetry is not obvious in the living animal, but is easily visible in the dried test. "Echinodermate" means "spiny skin" in Greek.

Inhabitants of the Red Sea - Sea urchin

Specifically, the term "sea urchin" refers to the "regular echinoids," which are symmetrical and globular. The term includes several different taxonomic groups: the order Echinoida, the order Cidaroida or "slate-pencil urchins", which have very thick, blunt spines, and others. Besides sea urchins, the class Echinoidea also includes three groups of "irregular" echinoids: flattened sand dollars, sea biscuits, and heart urchins.

Together with sea cucumbers (Holothuroidea), they make up the subphylum Echinozoa, which is characterized by a globoid shape without arms or projecting rays. Sea cucumbers and the irregular echinoids have secondarily evolved diverse shapes. Although many sea cucumbers have branched tentacles surrounding the oral opening, these have originated from modified tube feet and are not homologous to the arms of the crinoids, sea stars, and brittle stars.

Urchins typically range in size from 6 to 12 centimetres (2.4 to 4.7 in), although the largest species can reach up to 36 centimetres (14 in).

Like other echinoderms, sea urchins have fivefold symmetry. This is most apparent in the "regular" sea urchins, which have roughly spherical bodies, with five equally-sized parts radiating out from the central axis. Several sea urchins, however, including the sand dollars, are oval in shape, with distinct front and rear ends, giving them a degree of bilateral symmetry. In these urchins, the upper surface of the body is slightly domed, but the underside is flat, while the sides are devoid of tube feet. This "irregular" body form has evolved to allow the animals to burrow through sand or other soft material.

The lower half of a sea urchin's body is referred to as the oral surface, because it contains the mouth, while the upper half is the aboral surface. The internal organs are enclosed in a hard test composed of fused plates of calcium carbonate covered by a thin dermis and epidermis. The test is rigid, and divides into five ambulacral areas separated by five inter-ambulacral areas. Each of these areas consists of two rows of plates, so that the test includes twenty rows in total. The plates are covered in rounded tubercles, to which the spines are attached. The inner surface of the test is lined by peritoneum.

Urchins have tube feet, which arise from the five ambulacral areas.

The earliest echinoid fossils date to the upper part of the Ordovician period (c 450 MYA), and the species has survived to the present day, where they are a successful and diverse group of organisms. Spines may be present in well-preserved specimens, but usually only the test remains. Isolated spines are common as fossils. Some echinoids (such as Tylocidaris clavigera, from the Cretaceous period's English Chalk Formation) had very heavy club-shaped spines that would be difficult for an attacking predator to break through and make the echinoid awkward to handle. Such spines simplify walking on the soft sea-floor.

Most of the fossil echinoids from the Paleozoic era are incomplete, consisting of isolated spines and small clusters of scattered plates from crushed individuals. Most specimens occur in Devonian and Carboniferous rocks. The shallow water limestones from the Ordovician and Silurian periods of Estonia are famous for echinoids. Paleozoic echinoids probably inhabited relatively quiet waters. Because of their thin test, they would certainly not have survived in the wave-battered coastal waters inhabited by many modern echinoids. During the upper part of the Carboniferous period, there was a marked decline in echinoid diversity, and this trend continued to the Permian period. They neared extinction at the end of the Paleozoic era, with just six species known from the Permian period. Only two lineages survived this period's massive extinction of and into the Triassic: the genus Miocidaris, which gave rise to modern cidaroida (pencil urchins), and the ancestor that gave rise to the euechinoids. By the upper part of the Triassic period, their numbers began to increase again. Cidaroids have changed very little since the Late Triassic and are today considered to be living fossils.

Inhabitants of the Red Sea - Sea urchin

The euechinoids, on the other hand, diversified into new lineages throughout the Jurassic period and into the Cretaceous period, and from them emerged the first irregular echinoids (superorder Atelostomata) during the early Jurassic, and when including the other superorder (Gnathostomata) or irregular urchins which evolved independently later, they now represent 47% of all extant species of echinoids thanks to their adaptive breakthroughs, which allowed them to exploit habitats and food sources unavailable to regular echinoids. During the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras the echinoids flourished. Most echinoid fossils are often abundant in the restricted localities and formations where they occur. An example of this is Enallaster, which exists by the thousands in certain outcrops of limestone from the Cretaceous period in Texas. Many fossils of the Late Jurassic Plesiocidaris still have the spines attached.

Some echinoids, such as Micraster which is found in the Cretaceous period Chalk Formation of England and France, serve as zone or index fossils. Because they evolved rapidly, they aid geologists in dating the surrounding rocks. However, most echinoids are not abundant enough and are of too limited range to serve as zone fossils.


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