Limpets are tiny but they have a big bite. They have a tongue-like structure called a radula with rows and rows of replaceable teeth. The teeth are very strong indeed. Limpets use the radula to scrape micro-organisms from the surface of rocks for food. In the process they can also remove some of the rock surface itself where the rock is sufficiently soft. The quantity of rock which is removed in this way is small but, over great lengths of time, and given that there are so many individual limpets, it all adds up to a significant degree of wearing away of our coastal rocks. This type of coastal erosion comes into the category of bio-erosion.
Andrews and Williams (2000) describe work on the Upper Chalk on the East Sussex coast where limpets (Patella vulgata) living on the chalk shore platforms contribute to the down-wearing processes. In a series of experiments designed to estimate the rate of erosion by limpets, they found that adult limpets consume about 4.9 grams of chalk a year and that, overall, limpets were responsible for lowering the platform by an average of 0.15 mm a year. However, where limpets were particularly abundant, the rate might be as high as 0.49 mm annually. Taking into account all weathering and erosion processes, it is thought that limpets are responsible for an average of 12% of the total down-wearing in this geographical location but this can be as much as 35% of down-wearing in the areas where limpets live in higher densities. The figures obtained from this research have wider implications for the wearing away of other types of rock by limpets in other places.
The images in this post were taken on the beach at Seatown in Dorset, on the south coast of England. The rock to which the limpets are attached is calcareous mudstone that belongs to the Belemnite Member of the Charmouth Mudstone Formation of the Lias Group, and was deposited during the Jurassic Period . It comprises alternating light grey and dark grey layers which are full of trace fossil animal burrows and fossils such as belemnites and ammonites. The dark grey layers seem to be softer than the light grey ones and limpets live on both types, and on bedrock and boulders. The darker mudstone has a characteristic way of fracturing giving an almost polygonal pattern of cracks, from which small pieces easily break off, leaving regular-shaped shallow hollows across the surface. Limpets often settle in these natural hollows and further adapt them to suit their individual size and shape.
The destructive side-effect of the feeding activity of limpets is just one kind of bioerosion. Both feeding and resting habits of limpets can result in the wearing away of rocks. When the tide is in, limpets venture forth in their underwater world to feed mostly by scraping up microscopic food and sometimes by biting larger pieces from seaweed. When the tide goes out and limpets have to endure a dry world, they return to their home base to rest and batten down against moisture loss and desiccation. Limpets may take advantage of existing nooks, crannies and hollows to settle when exposed to air but, in order to ensure a secure fit as they clamp against the rock, limpets agitate and grind their conical shell into the rock surface, wearing it away to get an exact fit. Each circular home base is a depression that is custom-made for an individual limpet. When the home base is abandoned by a limpet, other younger limpets may take it over, either as individuals or in groups.
In the photographs you can see the places where the limpets have made their home bases in such hollows. There are unoccupied home bases, and re-occupied home bases as well. Surrounding many of the limpets and their home bases are typical patterns of grazing marks that trace the limpets’ foraging expeditions outwards from the base when water covers the rocks. It is also possible to see in some pictures the way that the radula teeth have actually carved into the mudstone. Burrows made by bristle worms living in mud tubes are an additional feature on the same rocks, and belemnite fossils lie close to the surface in places.