Researching the love life of a beach lugworm

Cullercoats beach.
Cullercoats beach.

Volunteers are being asked to keep an eye out for signs of passion along the coastline.

Sandy beaches are the ideal environment for the lugworm, Arenicola marina, to reproduce.

The species spends its life in a burrow in the sediment so to reproduce the males release sperm which collects in puddles on the surface of the beach. When the tide comes in, the sperm is washed down into the burrows of the females and fertilises her eggs.

Not a lot is known about the process so scientists are calling on members of the public to join them as citizen scientists by keeping an eye out for any signs of love within the lugworm population – including at Cullercoats beach.

The lugworm is a vital source of food for wader birds and fish and used as a source of bait in fishing.

The Spermwatch project is part of a wider conservation project called Capturing Our Coast (CoCoast) funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Dr Jacqueline Pocklington, CoCoast project coordinator at Newcastle University, said: “Some may recall that we ran this activity last year. We really appreciated the fantastic response, with over 250 surveys being conducted all around our coasts.

“We urgently need more surveys again this year to understand better what is affecting the worms’ reproduction.”

The study runs until December 1 and people are asked to collect data every three days. For more, download an instruction book from www.capturingourcoast.co.uk/specific-information/spermwatch

CoCoast is a partnership led by Newcastle University including Portsmouth, Bangor and Hull Universities, Marine Conservation Society, Marine Biological Association, Scottish Association of Marine Sciences and Earthwatch Europe.

Zoe Morrall, Capturing Our Coast Project Officer at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences, said: “Not a lot is known about lugworm reproduction and it is fascinating how the entire population of a species spawn, just for a few days every year, only when the environmental conditions are perfect.

“By continuing last year’s study and adding temperature data loggers to some sites it means we can better understand which conditions are important for a spawning event.

“We will also be able to understand how climate change may affect these events.

“By going out for a walk on any sandy beach across the UK, members of the public can get involved and help us answer these questions.”