Structural Strengthening of Urchin Skeletons by Collagenous Sutural Ligaments

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Sea urchin skeletons are strengthened by flexible collagenous ligaments that bind together rigid calcite plates at sutures. Whole skeletons without ligaments (removed by bleaching) broke at lower apically applied forces than did intact, fresh skeletons. In addition, in three-point bending tests on excised plate combinations, sutural ligaments strengthened sutures but not plates. The degree of sutural strengthening by ligaments depended on sutural position; in tensile tests, ambital and adapical sutures were strengthened more than adoral sutures. Adapical sutures, which grow fastest, were also the loosest, suggesting that strengthening by ligaments is associated with growth. In fed, growing urchins, sutures overall were looser than in unfed urchins. Looseness was demonstrated visually and by vibration analysis: bleached skeletons of unfed urchins rang at characteristic frequencies, indicating that sound traveled across tightly fitting sutures; skeletons of fed urchins damped vibrations, indicating loss of vibrational energy across looser sutures. Furthermore, bleached skeletons of fed urchins broke at lower apically applied forces than bleached skeletons of unfed urchins, indicating that the sutures of fed urchins had been held together relatively loosely by sutural ligaments. Thus, the apparently rigid dome-like skeleton of urchins sometimes transforms into a flexible, jointed membrane as sutures loosen and become flexible during growth.