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Thu Dec 6, 2018, 04:05 AM

The colourful world of Australian sea urchins

Scientist Ashley Miskelly has spent his life studying the world’s sea urchins, bringing attention to their bright, colourfully-patterned worlds.

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HEART urchins – heart-shaped, as their name suggests – are widely distributed around the Australian coastline, including offshore territory such as Lord Howe Island. There, Breynia australasiae live beneath the sand of the island’s pristine lagoon beaches, where their skeletons eventually wash up on the shore.

In 1982, Ashley Miskelly’s mother travelled to Lord Howe Island and on her return, showed him a heart urchin skeleton, or test, white and intricately patterned – fascinating for a young 14-year-old boy. “She asked me what I thought of it, and from then onwards I’ve been interested in them,” Ashley says.

Now an urchin specialist and Australia’s only echinoid taxonomist, Ashley came across heart urchins again while studying palaeontology in high school. This one was a fossilised specimen, but still similar to the one his mother first brought back from Lord Howe. “I got taken in by it and it’s just been that way ever since. They’re attractive-looking things,” he says.

As of 2018, Ashley has been studying not only Australian but the world’s sea urchins for 32 years. He’s contributed to scientific papers – on their taxonomy, behaviours and response to climate change – and written two books: Sea Urchins of Australia and the Indo-Pacific, a field guide, and Sea Urchins of the World – Diversity, Symmetry and Design, a coffee-table book.


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