The long and slender spines of Diadema are highly flexible, although their skeleton consists mainly of CaCO3 and behaves optically like a single monocrystal of calcite. The flexibility is due to the shape of the spine skeleton as well as to the material properties of the echinoderm calcite.
The spine skeletons are hollow beams consisting of radial wedges or septs. The shape of the septs shows a broad base situated at the periphery of the cross section, producing a high load-bearing capacity with minimum weight. Furthermore, material is concentrated at the base of the spine in such a way that the strain of the structure is kept constant along the axis. The septs are connected with one another by a few transverse bars positioned as closely as possible to the axis. The load-bearing parts of the septs are free. They have small diameters similar to flexible glass fibres. The stiff spines of other echinoids are also mainly built by radial wedges, but the spaces in between are closely filled with transverse bars. On the surface of stiff spines there are low grooves between the septs. The echinoid spines are covered with an epithelium which shows a basiepithelial nerve plexus. In the stiff spines this plexus forms cords which lie protected within the superficial grooves mentioned. In the flexible spines of Diadema the cords are deeply sunken in the spaces between the septs. In this manner the nerve cords are largely free from the tensile stresses to which the spine's surface is exposed.
The flexible spines were used to determine the material properties of echinoderm calcite. Young's modulus was determined for fresh (live) spines, dry spines, and cleaned spine skeletons. Fresh spines show the highest elasticity, and their Young's modulus is significantly below the Young's modulus of the other test groups. The echinoderm calcite does not show the cleavage planes of mineral calcite, and probably this feature contributes to the high flexibility of echinoderm calcite.