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The green sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus. Photo by LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

Lytechinus variegatus covering itself with fragments of algae and other debris. Photo by LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

Species Name: Lytechinus variegatus Lamarck, 1816
Common Name: Green Sea Urchin
Synonymy: None

    Kingdom Phylum/Division Class: Order: Family: Genus:
    Animalia Echinodermata Echinoidea Temnopleuroida Toxopneustidae Lytechinus

    Please refer to the accompanying glossary for definitions of the descriptive terms used in this report.

    Species Description

    The green sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, is one of several urchin species common to Florida and the Caribbean. The spines of L. variegatus  are characteristically short, and the underlying test is hemispherical with smoothly curving sides adorned with numerous small tubercles (Hendler et al. 1995). Tubercles are sparse on the aboral portions of the ambulacra and interambulacra, resulting in naked patches. Globiferous pedicellariae are numerous and conspicuous, appearing as stalked and nearly spherical white or pink structures. The color of the test and spines is variable, and has been used to identify subspecies of L. variegatus (Serafy 1973).

    Potentially Misidentified Species

    L. variegatus is similar in appearance to L. williamsi. However, the latter has purple pedicellariae instead of white or pink, fewer plates in each column of the test, and 12 wedges in the spines compared to the 24 found in L. variegatus (Hendler et al. 1995).


    Habitat & Regional Occurence

    Short-spined urchins like L. variegatus have fragile tests, which limit them to low energy areas with minimal wave impact (Hendler et al. 1995). They are most common in quiet waters with rocky and sandy bottoms, and in beds of the turtle grass, Thalassia testudinum. L. variegatus is reportedly intolerant of turbid waters with high quantities of suspended silt (Moore et al. 1963).

    The range of the green sea urchin extends from Beaufort, North Carolina southward throughout the Caribbean to Santos, Brazil. L. variegatus atlanticus also occurs in Bermuda (Hendler et al. 1995). Depths range from zero to 250 meters, although most individuals are found in waters less than 50 m (Serafy 1979).

    Indian River Lagoon Distribution

    The distribution of L. variegatus within the IRL remains undocumented. However, this urchin is likely most abundant in the southern lagoon, where turtle grass beds are more prevalent.



    L. variegatus reaches a total diameter of about 110 mm, with a test diameter of about 85 mm (Hendler et al. 1995).


    In turtle grass beds, L. variegatus  can reach extremely high numbers. Although little information is available concerning the abundance of this speciesin the IRL, densities of L. variegatus in other locations have been reported at 636 individuals per square meter (Camp et al. 1973).

    Reproduction & Embryology

    The green sea urchin is normally gonochoric. Reproduction of hermaphroditic individuals has been linked to abnormally low water temperatures (Moore et al. 1963). The spawning period of the green sea urchin is shorter in northern latitudes (Moore et al. 1963). In tropical locations like Panama, L. variegatus is sexually ripe throughout the year (Lessios 1985, 1991). In Florida, reproduction varies with season and environmental conditions (Ernest & Blake 1981). Mazur & Miller (1971) reported a reproductive season of March to October for Florida urchins held in the laboratory. Spawning in Panama, and possibly other locations, tends to occur during the new and full moons (Lessios 1991).

    Pearce & Cameron (1991) provide a review of the extensive literature available describing fertilization and early development in L. variegatus. Full development from zygote to metamorphosis takes 33-43 days in the laboratory (Mazur & Miller 1971), and can be accelerated by increasing the water temperature (Petersen & Almeida 1976). Salinities below 35 ppt result in decreased larval survival and developmental rates, even when the parents are acclimated to such salinities (Roller & Stickle 1993). In response to low food supply, larvae can increase their feeding efficiency by enlarging their ciliated bands (Boideron-Metairon 1988). After metamorphosis, juveniles can grow to a test diameter of about 15 mm in 6 months, and to 25 mm in 9 months (Pawson & Miller 1982, Michel 1984). Pearse & Cameron (1991) found some evidence for a difference in the number of chromosomes between male and female urchins.


    No information is available at this time


    Trophic Mode

    When population densities are high, L. variegatus can overgraze seagrass beds (Camp et al. 1973). However, studies have shown that the majority of the reported 0.6 g dry weight of T. testudinum consumed daily by each urchin consists of dead blades, having a minimal effect on live turtle grass (Vadas et al. 1982).

    Movement & Behavior

    L. variegatus often covers itself with plant and shell debris, holding the material in place with its tube feet (Mortensen 1943, Millott 1956, Sharp & Gray 1962, Kier & Grant 1965). Millott (1956) documented a rise in covering behavior in response to increased light levels, suggesting that the collected debris acts to shade the animal from strong light.   


    Predators of this urchin include: several species of fish (Randall 1967), shorebirds such as ruddy turnstones, Arenaria interpres (Hendler 1977), and herring gulls, Larus sp. (Moore et al. 1963); the reticulate cowrie-helmet, Cypraecassis testiculus (Hendler 1977); and the Caribbean helmet, Cassis tuberosa (Engstrom 1982).

    Parasites & Associated Species

    The turbellarian, Syndisyrinx collongistyla, has been reported to infest the body cavity and intestines of L. variegatus (Nappi & Crawford 1984, Hertel et al. 1990). Protozoan parasites are also reported for this urchin (Mortensen 1943). The polychaete, Podarke obscura, has been listed as an occasional associate (Ruppert & Fox 1988).


    No information is available at this time


    Boideron-Metairon IF. 1988. Morphological plasticity on laboratory-reared echinoplutei of Dendraster excentricus (Eschscholtz) and Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck) in response to food conditions. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 119: 31-41.

    Camp DK, Cobb S & JF van Breeveld. 1973. Overgrazing of seagrasses by a regular urchin, Lytechinus variegatus. BioScience 23: 37-38.

    Engstrom NA. 1982. Immigration as a factor in maintaining populations of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus (Echinodermata: Echinoidea) in seagrass beds on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. Studies Neotrop. Fauna Environ. 17: 51-60.

    Ernest RG & NJ Blake. 1981. Reproductive patterns within sub-populations of Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck) (Echinodermata: Echinoidea). J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 55: 25-37.

    Hendler G. 1977. The differential effects of season stress and predation on the stability of reef-flat echinoid populations. In: Taylor DL (Ed.). 217-223. Proceedings: Third International Coral Reef Symposium. Volume 1 (Biology). Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, University of Miami. Miami, Florida.

    Hendler G, Miller JE, Pawson DL & PM Kier. 1995. Sea stars, sea urchins, and allies: echinoderms of Florida and the Caribbean. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D.C. 390 pp.

    Hertel L, Duszynski DW & JE Ubelaker. 1990. Turbellarians (Umagillidae) from Caribbean urchins with a description of Syndisyrinx collongistyla, n. sp. Trans. Amer. Microscop. Soc. 109: 272-281.

    Kier PM & RE Grant, 1965. Echinoid distribution and habits, Kay Largo Coral Reef Preserve, Florida. Smithsonian Misc. Collect. 149: 1-68.

    Lessios HA. 1985. Annual reproductive periodicity in eight echinoid species on the Caribbean coast of Panama. In: Keegan BF & BDS O’Connor (Eds.). 303-311. Echinodermata. Proceedings of the Fifth International Echinoderm Conference. Galway, 24-29 September 1984. Belkema, Rotterdam.

    Lessios HA. 1991. Presence and absence of monthly reproductive rhythms among eight Caribbean echinoids off the coast of Panama. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 153: 27-47.

    Mazur JE & JW Miller. 1971. A description of the complex metamorphosis of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus cultured in synthetic sea water. Ohio J. Sci. 71: 30-36.

    Michel HB. 1984. Culture of Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck) (Echinodermata: Echinoidea) from egg to young adult. Bull. Mar. Sci. 34: 312-314.

    Millot N. 1956. The covering reaction of sea urchins. 1. A preliminary account of covering in the tropical echinoid Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck), and its relation to light. J. Exp. Biol. 33: 508-523.

    Moore HB, Jutare T, Bauer JC & JA Jones. 1963. The biology of Lytechinus variegatus. Bull. Mar. Sci. Gulf Carib. 13: 23-53.

    Mortensen T. 1943. A Monograph of the Echinoidea. Volume III. (3). Camarodonta. I. Orthopsidae, Glyphocyphidae, Temnopleuridae and Toxopneustidae. CA Reitzel, Copenhagen. vii + 553 pp. 56 pls.

    Nappi AJ & JA Crawford. 1984. The occurrence and distribution of a syndesmid (Turbellaria: Umagillidae) in Jamaican sea urchins. J. Parasitol. 70: 595-597.

    Pawson DL & JE Miller. 1982. Studies of genetically controlled phenotypic characters in laboratory-reared Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck) (Echinodermata: Echinoidea). In: Lawrence JM (Ed.). 165-171. Echinoderms: Proceedings of the International Conference. Tampa Bay, 14-17 September 1981. Balkema, Rotterdam.

    Pearse JS & RA Cameron. 1991. Echinodermata: Echinoidea. In: Giese AC, Pearse JS & VB Pearse (Eds.). 513-662. Reproduction of Marine Invertebrates, Volume VI, Echinoderms and Lophophorates. The Boxwood Press. Pacific Grove, CA.

    Petersen JA & AM Almeida. 1976. Effects of salinity and temperature on the development and survival of the echinoids Arbacia, Echinometra and Lythechinus. Thalassia Jugoslavia 12: 297-298.

    Randall JE. 1967. Food habits of reef fishes of the West Indies. Inst. Mar. Sci. Univ. Miami. Studies in Tropical Oceanog. No. 5: 665-847.

    Roller RA & Stickle. 1993. Effects of temperature and salinity acclimation of adults on larval survival, physiology, and early development of Lytechinus variegatus (Echinodermata: Echinoidea). Mar. Biol. (Berlin) 116: 583-591.

    Ruppert, EE & RS Fox. 1988. Seashore animals of the Southeast: A guide to common shallow-water invertebrates of the southeastern Atlantic coast. University of SC Press. Columbia, SC. USA. 429 pp.

    Serafy DK. 1973. Variation in the polytypic sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus (Lamarck, 1816) in the western Atlantic (Echinodermata: Echinoidea). Bull. Mar. Sci. 23: 525-534.

    Serafy DK. 1979. Echinoids (Echinodermata: Echinoidea). Memoirs of the Hourglass Cruises 5: 1-120.

    Sharp DT & IE Gray. 1962. Studies on factors affecting the local distribution of two sea urchins, Arbacia punctulata and  Lytechinus variegatus. Ecology 43: 309-313.

    Vadas RL, Fenchel T & JC Ogden. 1982. Ecological studies on the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus and the algal-seagrass communities of the Miskito Cays, Nicaragua. Aquat. Botany 14: 109-115.

Page by LH Sweat
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Page last updated: 31 October 2012

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