BackgroundFluorochrome staining is among the most widely used techniques to study growth dynamics of echinoderms. However, it fails to detect fine-scale increments because produced marks are commonly diffusely distributed within the skeleton. In this paper we investigated the potential of trace element (manganese) labeling and subsequent cathodoluminescence (CL) imaging in fine-scale growth studies of echinoderms.ResultsThree species of sea urchins (Paracentrotus lividus, Echinometra sp. and Prionocidaris baculosa) were incubated for different periods of time in seawater enriched in different Mn2+ concentrations (1 mg/L; 3 mg/L; 61.6 mg/L). Labeling with low Mn2+ concentrations (at 1 mg/L and 3 mg/L) had no effect on behavior, growth and survival of sea urchins in contrast to the high Mn2+ dosage (at 61.6 mg/L) that resulted in lack of skeleton growth. Under CL, manganese produced clearly visible luminescent growth fronts in these specimens (observed in sectioned skeletal parts), which allowed for a determination of the average extension rates and provided direct insights into the morphogenesis of different types of ossicles. The three species tend to follow the same patterns of growth. Spine growth starts with the formation of microspines which are simultaneously becoming reinforced by addition of thickening layers. Spine septa develop via deposition of porous stereom that is rapidly (within less than 2 days) filled by secondary calcite. Development of the inner cortex in cidaroids begins with the formation of microspines which grow at ~3.5 μm/day. Later on, deposition of the outer polycrystalline cortex with spinules and protuberances proceeds at ~12 μm/day. The growth of tooth can be rapid (up to ~1.8 mm/day) and starts with the formation of primary plates (pp) in plumula. Later on, during the further growth of pp in aboral and lateral directions, secondary extensions develop inside (in chronological order: lamellae, needles, secondary plate, prisms and carinar processes), which are increasingly being solidified towards the incisal end. Interradial growth in the ambital interambulacral test plates exceeds meridional growth and inner thickening.ConclusionsMn2+ labeling coupled with CL imaging is a promising, low-cost and easily applicable method to study growth dynamics of echinoderms at the micro-length scale. The method allowed us to evaluate and refine models of echinoid skeleton morphogenesis.