Marine Biology

, 166:141 | Cite as

Re-examination of the effects of food abundance on jaw plasticity in purple sea urchins

  • Maya S. deVriesEmail author
  • Summer J. Webb
  • Jennifer R. A. Taylor
Original Paper


Morphological plasticity is a critical mechanism that animals use to cope with variations in resource availability. During periods of food scarcity, sea urchins demonstrate an increase in jaw length relative to test diameter. This trait is thought to be reversible and adaptive by yielding an increase in feeding efficiency. We directly tested the hypotheses that (1) there are reversible shifts in jaw length to test diameter ratios with food abundance in individual urchins, and (2) these shifts alter feeding efficiency. Purple sea urchins, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, were collected and placed in either high or low food treatments for 3 months, after which treatments were switched for two additional months in La Jolla, CA (32.8674°N, 117.2530°W). Measurements of jaw length to test diameter ratios were significantly higher in low compared to high food urchins, but this was due to test growth in the high food treatments. Ratios of low food urchins did not change following a switch to high food conditions, indicating that this trait is not reversible within the time frame of this study. Relatively longer jaws were also not correlated with increased feeding efficiency. We argue that jaw length plasticity is not adaptive and is simply a consequence of exposure to high food availability, as both jaw and test growth halt when food is scarce.



We sincerely thank P. Zerofski for aquarium and experimental design support, T. Tunstall for help with data analysis, A. Rankin for assistance with animal care and measurements, M. McCowin for animal care assistance, and the insightful reviewers of this manuscript. This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Ocean Sciences Division Postdoctoral Broadening Participation Fellowship (OCE-PRF 1323837 to M. S. deVries), and the Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (to J. R. A. Taylor).

Author contribution

MSdV conceived of the study with input from SJW. MSdV and SJW designed the study with input from JRAT. SJW conducted the experiments and collected the data with help from MSdV. MSdV analyzed the data. MSdV wrote the manuscript but SJW wrote the methods section. JRAT had significant input in manuscript preparation. All authors contributed substantially to manuscript editing.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This research complied with animal welfare guidelines at the University of California, San Diego. The author declares no competing financial interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesSan José State UniversitySan JoseUSA
  2. 2.Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Marine Biology Research DivisionUniversity of California San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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