The trouble with tribbles: prehistoric existence of a fire urchin
With a never ending thirst for knowledge, underwater photographers continue to push the boundaries, with an effervescent search to document life that abounds beneath the sea.
As better and better digital cameras and lenses are developed, we continue to discover more and more about our oceans through underwater photography.
Every day, yet another diver converts to underwater photography as we suddenly realize the final frontier is here for the taking.
In our search for amazing encounters, we search for new locations to visit, sometimes just for the animal, sometimes just for the experience, which in turn, then tends to become a personal conquest to shoot and photograph proof positive the existence of a creature, or we try to add to our cache of “OMG” images. Then a funny thing happens to us all at some point or other,
and that is “discovery”.
For me, Anilao in the Philippines is like going back to a prehistoric time. Underwater there exists a profound presence of animals with highly developed, yet efficiently built-in defense mechanisms that have withstood the test of time and countless predators, yet there they stand, still alive and well. Where the symbiotic living arrangements defy imagination, and are sure to tempt
any Citizen Scientist’s imagination to run amuck with ideas and theories as to their origins, let alone tempt any photographer in to shooting no less than 500 images per day.
It is, simply put, a plethora; a plethora of prehistorically instinctive creatures ranging in size from that of no more than an eyelash to that of a whale shark.
Today’s prehistoric moment; while lying on the sandy bottom trying to focus on a pipefish, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a couple of fire urchins (Asthenosoma varium ). Magnificent splash of colors. Mmmm, it is so tempting to turn and photograph them, yet I remain determined to focus on the whereabouts of my Striped Network Pipefish and its movement.
Steadily inching in, hiding behind the lens port to get ever close enough to capture that Pipefish’s beautiful innocent little face.
Movement again to my left, and now also to my right catches my attention.
The pipefish sees my concern, and uses that distraction to exit…stage right.
Multiplying like Tribbles in a Star Trek flick, more and more Fire urchins chiddle (my word for their means of movement-which is not so much walking or waddling, or chittering, as it is “chiddling” – that is to say, motored by five rows of tubular sucker feet, yet steadily making rather alarmingly quick progress in my general direction), towards my body and are rapidly collecting
around the circumference of my body, as though about to chalk the outline of the fallen body at a crime scene.
Some say they are drawn to heat.
I say, oh-contraire, they have a mind of their own, and with their sinister poisons contained within their quills, they have nothing to fear, therefore perhaps they are contemplating a human take over. The mind runs wild- how are they communicating with one another? They seem to be acting as a collective mind.
So why the mass aggregation towards my still body? Are they simply curious about this dark neoprene form twenty times their collective size or do they rather enjoy stinging silly humans? They
have completely surrounded me, and are continuing to move in even closer. With the ability to inject their venom two different ways, they are certainly a poised killing machine. In between the
mass of quills (each containing a sac of neurotoxin, capable of rendering a human unconscious) are more stems with pincers that resemble 3 fingers opening and closing, but in fact are hundreds of tiny mouths with teeth. Yes, I said teeth.
These mouths that open and close are capable of biting and also injecting that powerful neurotoxin as well. I am astonished at their speed and stealth. Puts a whole new slant on “Silent but deadly”. To lean in any direction now is potentially dangerous. There is only way out of this and it is straight up.
Thank goodness I have a muck stick with which to push off the bottom.
Somewhat gruesome in this context, but however beautiful to behold, all divers should become aware of the many dangerous creatures that exist especially in prehistoric waters. But human nature and curiosity run very deep within us, and a return trip of discovery unfolds. I can no longer escape my desire to photograph these amazing colors.
Discovery: Within the quills of the fire urchin, live communities of other symbiotic life arrangements. Surprisingly the coleman shrimp (Periclimenes colmani) can be found within the confines of quills, but also some juvenile fish like snappers, cardinal fish or juvenile lionfish, and some small crabs such as the zebra crab (Zebrida adamsii), and urchin commensal shrimp (Tuleariocaris sp) can be seen, evading predators, and apparently unaffected by the neurotoxins.
Further investigation of this amazing creature indicates that the red fire urchins are known to live up to 200 years. They have 5 beaks called an Aristotle’s Lantern, that are self-sharpening. A true survivor from prehistoric times.
They are a favorite food to eels, octopus, triggerfish, sea otters in some areas, and finally humans.
Surprisingly, they do not have eyes, however their quills are sensitive to light, giving them a visual ability to “see” as if they have eyes.
Guess that’s a kind of sonar thing. The word is…they don’t actually have a brain, so what is the attraction to human?
Specifically only the Fire Urchins carry the poisonous neurotoxin. Fire Urchins can be found in the Indo-Pacific regions from as far north as Japan, throughout Indonesia and the Philippines, down to northern Australia. Oh, just in case you were wondering, yes the Radiant Sea Urchin – the one with the amazing neon blue dots, Astropyga radiate, is also venomous.
Their sting can cause excruciating burning pain, and in some cases paralysis, or restrictive breathing- not good underwater. Oddly even with the ability to live to 200 years, generally urchins are considered a threatened species due to over fishing and pollution. They are omnivores, eating both animals and plant life.
Is a series created by Suzan Meldonian, to share interesting points of interest with others about underwater life.
As she learns more (evolves) and shares with you, you share, and as a community, we evolve our understanding of life beneath the sea through underwater photography.
WORDS and PICTURES by Suzan Meldonian