The sea urchin

The sea urchin has an important job in the coral reef ecosystem. These spiny balls actually eat down the algae that otherwise would become overgrown on the coral reefs. This action ensure that enough sunlight gets through that the corals are kept alive. Without these creatures the corals would not get enough sunlight and they would stress out and eventually die off.

sea urchin with brittle stars

sea urchin covered in brittle stars

Sea Urchins are from the family echinoderm, which has the significant feature of being pentaradial. This means that it divides by 5 evenly. The only toxic species here in our reefs are the black spiny urchins. The tips of the long spines carry a mild neurotoxin, you will definitely know when you get stung by one.

underwater photo by Dalelan Anderson

underwater photograph by Dalelan Anderson

Humans have other ideas about these animals. They hurt when you step on them at the beach. Many humans tend to take them out of the water to keep themselves and children safe, but this action puts the reefs at risk. Several years ago almost all of the spiny black sea urchins died off due to an unknown disease coming out of Panama. When this happened reef recovery went diminished and more degradation occurred. The death of the sea urchins resulted in algae overgrowth on the reef and the corals bleached as a result of this stress, eventually sections of the reef died. In the past decade or two the spiny black sea urchin population has been recovering and along with it the coral reefs.

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In all ecosystems every living thing has a role. This creates a balance within the system. When a piece of the system is removed, introduced or left with no limitations on growth, the system is thrown out of balance. This is why invasive species, such as lion fish, are so detrimental to the reef system. A species that has no natural predator/population control, will increase in size and population, left unchecked this can be completely devastating to balance of the ecosystem it occupies.

black urchin

To take for granted the importance of any one species is to overlook the power of the system and the balance within. Jamaica needs her reefs for protection, income and food, to act as though it is expendable and worthless is to put Jamaica’s future into jeopardy.

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