Friday, October 5, 2012


The other day a park visitor from Germany who'd just been reading in his guidebook about sea otters asked me "What is 'sea urchin'?" and after I failed at describing it through the language barrier, we walked across the whale overlook to where purple sea urchins are pictured on one of the columns. Immediate recognition - "Ahhh!" - was followed by a lively conversation in two languages about etymology. Thank goodness for iPhone translation apps.

All over the rest of the world, these are apparently known as sea hedgehogs. Totally makes sense. Unless you're from North America, where there are no native hedgehogs. Or England, which is where the 16th-century slang term "urchin" was coined, referring first to hedgehogs themselves, and then to people with physical deformities that caused rounding of the spine, then generalized to encompass anyone with physical deformities, and then eventually street people; anyone who, in that time period, was most likely to be a beggar. After awhile it was applied more to street children and less to the disabled...and the term traveled to North America that way.

So: purple sea urchin = purple sea hedgehog = Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

Otters aren't the only ones who eat urchins. We do too. Sushi has been so assimilated into the American diet that it's no longer uncommon. And uni is a standard offering at most sushi restaurants. Uni is the roe of red sea urchins (S. franciscanus) -- the eggs. Sea otters eat all varieties of urchins, but we prefer red urchins; their roe is more popular and considered high quality than the roes from purple urchins. Red urchins are harvested off the coast of California, in the deeper waters around kelp forests; the same places sea otters feed.

I could totally go off on so many tangents here: neoteny, our preference for "saving" species we find cute (otters, not urchins), competition for resources, the balances of conservation management, etc., but I'll resist. All things to reflect on, the next time you eat uni. If you're a fan of uni.

You can read more about sea hedgehogs and sea otters here.

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