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The Surreal World of Sea Urchins

French filmmaker, Jean Painlevé, ushers us into the disconcerting realm of echinoderms.

Sea Urchin

Photo: Samuel Chow

Sea urchins range in size and color but no matter what you see always be careful of their sting.

Of all the animal phyla to highlight for Halloween, the echinoderms may seem like a strange choice. I mean, what threat could sea urchins and starfish possibly pose?

You need to see Jean Painlevé’s 1954 film on the subject. (See link below.)

Part nature documentary, part surrealist dream sequence, Sea Urchins immerses you completely in the creatures’ twitching, creeping, alien world with extreme close-ups that make you wonder if you’re about to get chewed up, digested and excreted.

This is no Finding Nemo or Little Mermaid. This is totally weird — St. John’s Revelation meets George Lucas’ Sarlacc meets submarine night terror.

It’s psychological warfare.

Things to Know

While it’s probably best to crank up the Ligeti or Slayer and let the images wash over you, there are a few things you might like to know about.

First is the urchin’s unique mouth structure, which goes by the name ‘Aristotle’s Lantern’.  (See image.)  It features five self-sharpening, calcium carbonate teeth arranged in a ring. Astonishingly, these can chomp through stone no problem.

Next are all those wormy protuberances and spines. The former are tube feet. They help with scuttling around along the seafloor. The latter are there to dissuade predators and can actually regenerate if damaged.

Finally, biologists believe urchins’ entire bodies function as a sort of compound eye, affording the little guys a rudimentary vision on par with the horseshoe crab and nautilus.

Enjoy the flick. It’s short and will compliment well your annual viewing of Nosferatu or The Exorcist.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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