Friday, June 10, 2016

Have you tasted Sea Urchin?

Echinus esculentus Linneaus 1758, Class Echinoidea, Phylum Echinodermata   
Esculentus means "edible" and sea urchin roe is used as food around the world.   It is not actually the eggs that are eaten but the gonads or reproductive organs - which gives the popular belief that it is an aphrodisiac food. 

Dr Abe V Rotor

A harvest of sea urchin off the coast of Dumaguete, Oriental Negros. It is served in a floating restaurant while cruising to watch for whales and dolphins, a tourist attraction.
We call it in Ilocano maritangtang, referring to any species distinctly ball shaped with radiating spines, short or long, variegated of pitch black, some almost bald, while others covered with spikes that almost hide the real body.

And what an extreme impression we have about this enigmatic marine creature which occupies the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder of invertebrates. (Poriferans - the sponges, occupy the lowest rung). This means that the members of Phylum Echinodermata have well developed senses and organs, except for brain! 

Luckily Nature has endowed the members highly sensitive senses to adapt to their environment - gregarious, wide range feeders, and armored with thick exoskeleton with radiating spikes and poisonous sting that few predators would dare to attack them. No wonder they live up to 5 years, and in the case of the pink sea urchin 200 years! It is one of the longest living creatures on earth!
Beware! Don't walk the sea floor barefooted. And where sea urchins abound in colonies, the sea floor appears like a beautiful tapestry with iridescent glow, so inviting you are seeing another world. In most places though, sea urchins live in small groups, often camouflaged by silt, seaweeds, sea grasses or simply by the coral reef on which they live.

As a professor in marine biology at the UST Graduate School I always emphasize never to underestimate the sea urchin. Getting a stab requires quick remedy, and if one steps of the black one (photo), medical attention becomes necessary, not only for the wound but possible allergic reaction.

So how do you treat the sea urchin other than not to touch it? Just observe, photograph, or ask a local guide to pick it up for you as specimen. Keep it in a jar of formalin or alcohol solution for your school laboratory. 

And if you touch one and a spine is embedded in your hand, don't panic.  Don't pry it with needle, it will only get deeper. Soak the wound with vinegar or calamansi juice. The spike is a calcium compound so that it readily dissolves in acid.  Local folks have a more practical remedy - urine. Who could resist to answer the call of nature in severe pain and fear? 

All these make the sea urchin a delicious treat, if you may. But there's one curious effect many people crave - increased sexual desire.  Eating the gonads - testes and ovary - of the sea urchin (sea urchins have separate sexes - dioecious) delivers the Freudian drive for sexual expression and gratification. Whatever we eat as long its healthy food, the effect is possibly the same. And it is excellent health that keeps us on our toes always.  

Study the anatomy of the sea urchin. 

"The mouth of the sea urchin (known as the Aristotle's lantern), is found in the middle on the underside of the sea urchin's body and has five tooth-like plates for feeding. The anus of the sea urchin is located on the top of the body. As with other echinoderms, sea urchins do not have a brain and instead rely on their water-vascular system which is like a circulatory system and comprises of water-filled channels that run through the body of the sea urchin." Wikipedia.

What you are seeing in water is the adult sea urchin. Take a look at this illustration. The immature stages are almost invisible to the naked eye.   

Sea urchins spawn during the spring (monsoon), and the female sea urchin releases millions of tiny, jelly-coated eggs into the water that are then fertilized by the sperm of the male sea urchin. The tiny sea urchin eggs become part of the plankton and the sea urchin babies (larvae) do not hatch for several months. The sea urchin young will not become large enough to retreat from the plankton and down to the ocean floor until they are between 2 and 5 years old.

Due to dredging on the ocean floor and pollution in the water, and the effects of Global Warming, not to mention the increasing appetite of people all over the world, sea urchin populations are declining.

Today, the edible sea urchin, Echinus esculentus, is a threatened species. Next time you order the delicacy, don't look too seriously at the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation (Aphrodite, equivalent is the Roman goddess Venus). ~

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