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Sea Urchins Are the Edible Pincushions of the Ocean

Purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) off the coast of California. Tammy616/Getty Images

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Whoever it was that first came upon the sharp, spiny body of a sea urchin and said: "Hey, let's crack this bad boy open and see if the orange goo inside tastes good" deserves a gold medal in bravery and sheer determination.

The sea urchin is a small, spiny little sea creature called an echinoderm, part of the class Echinoidea, of which there are more than 940 species worldwide. Sea urchins, along with all members of the phylum Echinodermata are found only in the ocean, a particularly unusual quality as a large number of aquatic animals tend to take up residence in lakes and streams as well. Sea urchins most often can be found in shallow water and even carpet the seafloor in some spots.

Can You Eat Sea Urchin?

With the hellish look and feel of this echinoderm, one has to wonder why people actually want to eat what's inside.

Sea urchin fishing began in Japan soon after World War II before spreading to the entire Pacific Rim by the 1970s and within two more decades the practice would spread to the Atlantic region.

"The global peak in sea urchin harvests occurred around 1993 and has declined ever since," explains Steneck. "In many places, it is a poster-child example of overfishing." In the year 2000, 20 million pounds (10 million kilograms) of sea urchins were harvested in California and were sold to markets in Japan.

What Does Sea Urchin Taste Like?

So, the big question is: How does sea urchin taste?

David Glass, accomplished dessert chef, foodie, self-described sea urchin fanatic and father to this particular author, has a few choice words when it comes to consuming the bizarre little creatures:

"The brilliant orange color, slightly fermented aroma and solidity suggesting a catastrophic explosion of flavor in your mouth precede your first taste. That first taste is sticky, oceanic, sweet and fermented, and everything else that makes up the taste known as umami. Poetry starts to flood your brain."

"Uni" is the Japanese name for the edible part of the sea urchin. But Japan isn't the only country where where sea urchins are considered a delicacy.
Herman Au Photography/Getty Images

In layman's (that is, not foodie) terms: Sea urchin (aka uni) tastes weird but fine. It's gooey, runny, sweet, slightly salty, with a texture somewhere between an egg yolk and Jell-O. It is a very, very unusual taste, but when prepared right, provocative and worthy of an eyebrow raise.

What Eats a Sea Urchin?

After humans, the sea urchin's second-biggest predator is one of its own — a fellow echinoderm that you're all familiar with: the starfish. If you think starfish are beautiful, get ready to be horrified with this graphic nugget of info: The starfish will actually wrap itself around the sea urchin, "everting their stomach against the sea urchin to dissolve away the flesh and shell, eventually getting to the succulent interior."

Scientists also believe that some species of sea urchins don't die unless they're killed.

"No animal lives forever, but these red sea urchins appear to be practically immortal," Thomas Ebert, a marine biologist at Oregon State University said in a 2009 article based on the findings of a study by scientists from Oregon State University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on red sea urchins, published in the U.S. Fishery Bulletin. "They can die from attacks by predators, specific diseases or being harvested by fishermen. But even then they show very few signs of age. The evidence suggests that a 100-year-old red sea urchin is just as apt to live another year, or reproduce, as a 10-year-old sea urchin."

And here's another thing. The sea urchin eats using a method that's as complex as the way it tastes. It's called the Aristotle's lantern and it's made of five teeth that are arranged in a circle at the bottom of its body. It uses the teeth to scrape algae from rock surfaces and to create depressions in the seafloor that become its hideaway. Pretty wild.

What If You Step on a Sea Urchin?

Sea urchin tube feet extend past their spines, attach to the sea floor and allow them to move.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By 2.0)

"A sea urchin's body plan is pretty unique," says Bob Steneck, professor of Oceanography, Marine Biology and Marine Policy at the University of Maine. "One could say it is a hollow limestone sphere (made of numerous hexagonal plates sort of like a geodesic dome) with spines that make it look like a pincushion. They move slowly using numerous small tubular suction devices called 'tube feet.'"

These tube feet are strong muscles that protrude from the ends of the spines, which they can attach to rocks or coral, allowing them to move over the sea floor.

And those little spines? Think of them as a sharp little feet that are just achin' to pierce your skin. While it's certainly not pleasant, Steineck assures that stepping on a sea urchin is not deadly and he has, to date, never heard of a fatal case due to an accidental trampling.

Still, if you're worried about stepping on one of these bad boys ... well, maybe wear rubber-soled shoes and try not to. A prick on the feet by one of these spines can cause damage to the skin and sometimes even the bone inside. A few species' spines can be venomous, but not so much that it would be fatal to humans. The worst that can happen is a potential allergic reaction or further injury from trying to remove the spine. Instead of tugging at it, use vinegar, which will dissolve the spine and leave behind only the distant memory of the time you stepped on a living pin cushion.

So, whether you accidentally come upon these spiny marine creatures on the sea floor via your foot or take a bit of its insides doused in soy sauce over rice, you really have to appreciate the sea urchin for its unbroken commitment to staying weird.

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