The shape of sea urchins may be determined mechanically by patterns of force analogous to those that determine the shape of a water droplet. This mechanical analogy implies skeletal flexibility at the time of growth. Although comprised of many rigid calcite plates, sutural collagenous ligaments could confer such flexibility if the sutures between plates loosened and acted as joints at the time of growth. We present experimental evidence of such flexibility associated with weight gain and growth. Over 13-, 4-, and 2-week periods, fed urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) gained weight and developed looser sutures than unfed urchins that maintained or lost weight. Further, skeletons of fed urchins force-relaxed more than did those of unfed urchins and urchins with loose sutures force-relaxed more than those with tight sutures. Urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) fed for two and a half weeks, gained weight, also had looser skeletons and deposited calcite at sutural margins, whereas unfed ones did not. In field populations of S. droebachiensis the percentage having loose sutures varied with urchin diameter and reflected their size-specific growth rate. The association between feeding, weight gain, calcite deposition, force relaxation and sutural looseness supports the hypothesis that urchins deform flexibly while growing, thus determining their drop-like shapes.
Johnson, Amy S.; Ellers, Olaf; Lemire, Jim; Minor, Melissa; and Leddy, Holly A., "Sutural loosening and skeletal flexibility during growth: Determination of drop-like shapes in sea urchins" (2002). Biology Faculty Publications. 149.