A Sea Urchin Which Inspires Thoughts of Love

As a rule, neither sea urchins nor their scientific names are thought of by the average person in terms of anything except pain and suffering. Take, for instance, one of California’s most visible species, the giant red sea urchin. Certainly, it has left extremely unpleasant reminders of its presence with many a diver or beachgoer who have had any of its numerous brittle spines imbedded into their flesh. But it is unclear if all that pain and discomfort has rivaled the suffering of countless students of the marine sciences who have had to struggle with memorizing its cumbersome scientific name— Strongylocentrotus franciscanis.

Sea urchins, however, need not be such unpleasant creatures. There is one that lives around California’s gentle sandy beaches that could be taken as the very essence of the inspiration of love. It is rosy colored, its spines gracefully recline backwards, and it is even called by the common name of heart urchin, and the delightfully memorable scientific name of Lovenia cordiformis.

How charming! But before getting totally swept away with trying to read too much into this name, it should be revealed that while cordiformis does mean “heart-shaped,” one of the early researchers into sea urchins was S. L. Loven.

So, is it only coincidental that this sea urchin was given a love resembling name? Well, it is at times hard to know what went through the minds of people who made it their business to attach Latinized or Hellenized names onto animals and plants. Still the same, the end result in this case certainly works for the advantage of others who want to remember the resultant scientific binomial.

With a typical sea urchin (which Strongylocentrotus is considered to be), the skeletal body, called the “test,” which is essentially a round ball, slightly flattened top to bottom. There is no right or left sides, only five equally endowed sections, with the mouth in the middle, down below. This is referred to as “radial symmetry.” When alive, of course, there is a bouquet of spines arranged with the larger at the top and the shorter underneath.

Yet the heart urchin is not truly radial symmetric like those other urchins and most other echinoderms are “supposed” to be. Oh, it is still divided into five sections, which are visibly apparent as the pretty five-petal flower shape on the back of its test. But there is a definite “front,” “back,” “left,” and “right,” besides top and bottom. So the heart urchin is considered to be secondarily bilaterally symmetrical.

This variance from the echinoderm norm is not without good reason. The heart urchin does not just sit around on rocks looking threatening as do so many other sea urchins. It buries itself down into the sand and this elongated form is useful for its plowing activities.

Lovenia cordiformis is not the world’s—or even California’s—only heart urchin. Tropical varieties with similar romance inspiring names, such as Echinocordium cordiatum, and California’s others with the not very charming scientific names of Brissosops pacifica and Nacospatangus laevis, have fairly short spines and tend to bury themselves completely into soft mud or sand. They only keep in contact with the outside world by means of a mucus coated “chimney.” From the confines of their subterranean (or submarine) safety point, these heart urchins use their long tube feet to bring in enough richly endowed sand or mud to sustain themselves off the organic material therein.

Lovely Lovenia, however, is more open in its lifestyle. Enchanted divers who have been around the Channel Islands and more southerly dive spots have seen this small three-inch long echinoderm scampering about over the sand. Even when not active, Lovenia only partially buries itself, leaving its long, backward pointing spines essentially exposed.

This habit has proved great for cautious divers, miserable for beach walkers! Lovenia cordiformis may be one of the few sea urchins with a scientific name which can truly be said to inspire thoughts of love, and it may have been given an assortment of common names which are just as sweet sounding—heart urchin, sea mouse—but it is, after all, still an urchin! Trying to rub it the wrong way will prove beyond any question that even the most beautiful Lovenia is not to be trifled with. Its spines will bristle up toward the point of disturbance and can easily be jabbed, like cupid’s fabled arrows, into the flesh of the offender.

But isn’t that what is to be expected of most things associated with the heart and love? And, as with those, there is good reason Lovenia is so hard to get to know intimately without pain. The tests or skeletal shells of all heart urchins are much thinner and more delicate and fragile than those of other sea urchins. Obviously HEART [urchin] and SOLE [of a barefoot person] is not a pleasant combination, but as far as the animals themselves are concerned, the damage that could be done by a BROKEN HEART [urchin] is far more serious and permanent.

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