Small holes made by marine worms in Studland Chalk bedrock

In the corner of South Beach at Studland in Dorset, where the chalk cliffs that lead to Old Harry Rocks meet the seashore, the Studland Chalk Formation bedrock extends over the beach as a flat wave-washed platform. The smooth white rock surface is exposed at low tide but is frequently covered by sand, pebbles and decaying seaweed. On a recent visit a lot of the weed had cleared and I was able to observe the chalk platform closely. I realised that it is riddled with small holes and tunnels made by marine polychaete worms.

The holes on the surface of the rocks are roughly dumb-bell shaped and a few millimetres across. You can tell the worms are still living and occupying the burrows because the combined mucous and mud tube-linings remain intact. In locations where the rock has broken, the shape of the tunnels leading down into the rock from the holes on the surface is revealed. The tunnels or burrows are approximately U-shaped. The worm lies in a doubled-up position in the burrow with both the head and the rear end at the rock surface. When the tide is in, and water covers the burrow, the worm protrudes and vigorously agitates its two long, thin, ciliated palps (feelers) to gather particulate food floating by. Waste matter is expelled into the water but it is probably the overall acidic environment created by the metabolic waste products that gradually dissolves the calcium in the rock to create the burrow.

The accurate identification of these worms is problematical since the most diagnostic parts are usually discarded by the animal as soon as the creature is extricated from its burrow. However, it is likely that they are bristle worms of the Spionidae family, probably the Polydora genus, and possibly Polydora ciliata (Johnston).

Studland Beach Finds

Some of the things that caught my eye as I walked along the beach at Studland in Dorset, England, included interesting beach stones; stranded clumps of red, green, and brown seaweeds; an empty shell of a clam just eaten by a bird; and tubes of Sand Mason Worms.

Worm Casts at Pembroke Bay

Lug worm casts and blow holes on a sandy beach

Lug worm casts and blow holes were widespread over the low-tide sand at Pembroke Bay on the Channel Island of Guernsey when I visited in early October. They had a more scattered distribution and the casts were not so fine as those I have seen on other parts of the island at Rocquaine Bay and Cobo Bay. Two species of Arenicolidae have been recorded for Guernsey and I wonder if I have been looking at the burrows and traces of the two different types. Here on the beach at Pembroke Bay I think they could well be Arenicola marina (Linnaeus) whereas those I had photographed else where could be Arenicola ecaudata Johnston which prefers the rich mud between stones or in rock crevices at low water. Both types of cast are shown in the gallery below. Click to enlarge the images and see the descriptions.

A Walk at Rocquaine Bay

Follow in my footsteps with a virtual walk along beautiful Rocquaine Bay on the west coast of the Channel Island of Guernsey. It is protected by a long sea defence wall which has employed different construction techniques along its length; mostly using local stone but also with along stretch of reinforced concrete (probably originating from German occupation World War II fortifications). The beach is both rocky and sandy with some pebble patches. Seaweeds of every colour abound. Huge limpets with white shells cluster on the bright orange-spattered L’Eree granite bedrock while outcrops of monochrome microgranodiorite occur on the upper shore near Fort Grey. Marine worm casts cover the softer muddy sands. Streams flow across the shore, their clear shallow water reflecting sunlight from the ripple crests and creating shadow patterns. A small stone jetty looks marooned among the rocks and a multi-coloured carpet of weed. Small boats bobbing in the turquoise water, rusty buoys and chains half-buried in seaweed, and algae-encrusted mooring ropes add to the evidence for fishing and leisure boating activities.

Click on the first picture to view the images in the gallery in the sequence that they were taken during the walk.

Tube-worm Holes in Ringstead Chalk Boulders

Close-up of tube-worm holes in a chalk boulder

Pebbles and beach stones riddled with small holes are a common beachcomber’s find. These small burrows and borings in the stone are frequently made by marine worms. The worms themselves, and the mud and sand tubes in which they live within the burrows, are usually absent. However, on the water’s edge in many coastal locations, if you know where to look, it is possible to spot the burrows still occupied by the worms; this is usually in large and mainly immovable boulders, or in the bedrock of the beach platform, or the base of a cliff face. The worm itself is almost impossible to see because at low tide, when the rock is exposed to the air, it retreats into the tube and burrow. Though sometimes, apparently, its two palps or feelers can be seen protruding from the hole and waving around vigorously. I haven’t observed that myself so far.

Without microscopically examining the actual worms, it isn’t possible to say with a 100 per cent certainty what these worms are. Nevertheless, there are enough characters available to say that these are most likely to be marine polychaetes of the Spionidae, and probably one of the Polydora group, maybe Polydora ciliata (Johnston).

All the Polydora species make a U-shaped tube from small particles of mud, or whitish calcareous matter if they have been burrowing into calcareous algae, shell, or limey stone; all this is stuck together with secreted mucus. The tube is normally embedded in the burrow that it has excavated. There are two holes in the mud tube, one at the front and one at the back end – but they lie side by side because the tube and burrow are U-shaped. In the examples photographed here, many worm tubes are packed together, and there are instances where the chalk burrows have joined together and broadened out into deeper, less well-defined, depressions.

The method by which the worms create the burrows is thought to be an almost incidental process. The worms initially settle and manufacture their mud tubes in the shelter of slight cracks and crevices in rock or shell surfaces, or between sessile barnacles, or amongst soft algae in rock depressions, and other such places on the seashore where it always remains damp at low tide. The metabolism of the living worm leads to the production of slightly acidic waste. Over time, the seepage of these waste products gradually eats into and dissolves the rock or shell on which the worm tube lies, enabling the worm to retreat further and further into the safety of the substrate. The burrow formed like this reflects the shape of the U-shaped mud tube.

COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014

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Calcareous marine worm tubes on a flotsam hub cap

Mostly the keeled calcareous tubes of the Serpulid marine polychaete worm Pomatoceros triqueter with a few empty acorn barnacle shells and seameats or Bryozoans. These epibiont organisms had colonised an old plastic car hub cap that eventually washed up as flotsam on the beach. The animals themselves had long vacated the shells and tubes that remained encrusted on the plastic.

COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014

All Rights Reserved