Sea urchins around the coast of Australia actually drill into rocks to make their homes.

A paper published in the open access journal PLoS one in February 2018 has revealed the secretive mining habits of some of California’s familiar coastal neighbours. Purple sea urchins are often found by divers and snorkelers. They can be seen nestled in little pits and crevasses which seem just the right size, hiding themselves away from the outside world like blog readers in a bed or office cubicle.

These animals hug the coastline, similar to other species around world which seem to fit in similarly neat little holes in the rock. The east coast of Australia harbours one such species, also called the purple urchin, Heliocidaris erythrogramma . 

The scientists in California looked at whether the urchins were actually digging the holes in the rock that they kept seeing them nestled in so neatly – too neatly – and surprise surprise, yes, they did! The scientists then went further, and looked at how fast they could dig these holes in different types of rocks, and found they dug holes faster in softer mud-stone than in sandstone.

It’s interesting that this fact manages to be new to science in 2018. A ubiquitous beach side neighbour to millions of people is busily conducting council unapproved earthworks, and likely have for as long as they lived here. Like a series end twist reveal on Home and Away or the climax of a prison escape film.

“Good god! They’re digging through the rocks!!”

There is something very exciting, though, about how this kind of large scale behaviour of such a ubiquitous animal can still be an untested mystery,  just waiting for someone with enough curiosity to look deeper. Indeed, the scientists who have discovered the rock pitting behaviour of the purple sea urchin have posed many more unanswered questions.

The world’s oceans are changing rapidly, especially in the areas of high human expansion and activity around the coast and inter-tidal zones. The paper’s authors also wondered whether the rates of these urchins pit drilling was also changing. How much could it be affecting coastal erosion of temperate reefs?

There are many examples of big impacts the activities of these slow little creatures can have on the environment. Increased urchin numbers have contributed to the destruction of the giant kelp forests in southern Tasmanian waters. Decreasing numbers of lobsters, which prey on the urchins, allows them to flourish and eat the base of kelp undeterred. They might move slowly and not seem like much, but when conditions change they can have huge effects en-masse and their potential is not always a reflection of what it first appears.

The discovery that sea urchins might be trying to get a foot in the mining industry just goes to show that there is great potential in the lives of even the meekest creatures around us. Even weird little spiky balls under the sea. It’s also an encouraging reminder that there are always valuable questions to ask about the world around us. There’s always an adventure to be had nearby. Next time you go to the beach and have a snorkel keep an eye out for your sleepy rock drilling urchin neighbours and have a think about what else they might be up to.

-W

The research paper can be viewed in the following link: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0191278

 

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The ‘right’ way to pronounce it

Have you ever wondered if you were pronouncing your foreign friend’s name correctly? Well, I’m guessing not – you probably have better things to do with your time, but I’m going to give you my opinions on this anyway because I foolishly slept on a Sunday afternoon and am thus in an annoyingly alert haze of ‘why did I do that’, ‘what am I going to do tomorrow’, ‘oh god I forgot to make lunch for work’, ‘what the heck is an “alert haze”‘ and, interestingly, a slight craving for some roti. Bear with me.

See, for those of you that don’t know, I am one of those foreigners with a non-English name. The romanised translation is, frankly, inaccurate, and I can assure you that no one in Australia (where I live) actually pronounces it correctly unless they speak fluent Mandarin. Now, to be fair, I care about the proper pronunciation of my name about as much as I cared when a coworker told me about the rigours they endured to obtain the missing part for their blender , or something (I wasn’t paying attention because I didn’t care). And, if I’m honest, I’m probably more likely to respond to the English pronunciation of my name than the correct Chinese way these days. But on the other hand, I was quite bemused when an exchange student with an American accent tried pronouncing my name and was laughed at by someone else for ‘saying it funny’. When I pointed out that, technically, no one in the room was actually pronouncing it ‘correctly’, all of my friends were shocked and resolved to pronounce my name correctly for all of fifteen minutes before, I dunno, we got drunk or something. Memories from the beginnings of semesters at uni are a bit hazy for me.

It did, however, get me thinking about this. What is the correct way of translating a name? Unlike other words, many names cannot be translated across languages directly. Of course, most people try to make a carbon copy of a name in their own language, but practically, the pronunciation is probably going to be a bit off, like Hank Yoo trying to fit in with the white supremacists – I mean, you’re close, but you’re not really there. Listening to anyone who uses English as a second language would tell you that there are fundamental differences in pronunciation between languages that take years to overcome, so it really isn’t that surprising. Of course, so long as you try, you’ve, well, tried (I’m on a roll tonight), so no one can hold it against you if you end up getting it wrong. I certainly wouldn’t, and this isn’t really the thing I have an issue with.

What I do have an issue with, though, is instances like the one I described earlier, where an English speaker (or any language really) has such little awareness to the point they actually try to lecture other people on the pronunciation of a name from a language they don’t speak. Their pronunciation being ‘closer’ to the real one isn’t a good enough reason. A copy of the Mona Lisa with a frown is ‘closer’ to the original than a copy with two heads but that doesn’t make it accurate, and Mr Frown sure as heck doesn’t have any right to tell anyone else what they’re doing wrong. And this happens quite a lot. I’ve had people literally try to tell me how to pronounce Szechuan and feng shui, the absurdity of which I’m sure you’d immediately understand, but there are also less obvious examples, like correcting others on the pronunciation of French names such as Gare du Nord. Now, I’m sorry, do you speak French to the level that Parisians can’t tell the difference between you and a local? And if not, how are you managing to feel smug about French pronunciation?

To be honest, I just find a coworker annoying because they do this all the time. You just read four paragraphs of me venting about them. On the plus side though, I’m pretty sleepy now. Ergh, what am I going to do for lunch tomorrow?

-Z