© Richard Harrington

Sex in the sediment

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 13 October 2017

We’re on a mission to discover more about the love life of the lugworm, whose opportunities to mate are few and far between.

Why not combine a gentle stroll on the beach this autumn with keeping an eye out for lugworm sperm? Each survey submitted provides valuable information to help piece together the puzzle of when these elusive marine worms breed and what environmental factors might trigger them to spawn. If you fancy being involved in some intriguing scientific research, join Spermwatch and help realise the power of citizen science!

Leonie Richardson,
Capturing our Coast Project Officer

The lugworm, (Arenicola marina), is a vital source of food for wader birds and fish and is popular as a bait for anglers.

But very little is known about the sex life of this sediment-dwelling worm, so MCS is looking for citizen scientists help shed some light on these secretive creatures.

Lugworms can only reproduce when conditions are absolutely right – and the next few months are the optimum time which means it’s the ideal opportunity to observe and record any evidence of passionate activity.

The lugworm spends its life in a burrow, so dating isn’t much of an option. Instead, 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 their eggs.

Not a lot is known about the process - all that we do know is that specific environmental conditions are needed to trigger the release of the sperm and the egg at the same time. So scientists at MCS are calling on members of the public to help fill in the knowledge gaps via a project called ‘Spermwatch’.

Spermwatch is led by the University of Portsmouth, is part of a wider conservation project called Capturing Our Coast funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is a partnership led by Newcastle University including Portsmouth, Bangor and Hull Universities, MCS, Marine Biological Association, Scottish Association of Marine Sciences and Earthwatch Europe.

It’s the second year the Spermwatch project has been run. Zoe Morrall, Capturing Our Coast Project Officer at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences, says because the entire population of a species spawn for just a few days every year, when the environmental conditions are perfect - every bit of data is vital: “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.”

The study starts on the 22nd October and runs until 1st December 2017 and people are asked to collect data every three days from one of 12 different sites around the UK. It should take around 45 minutes and it is an ideal way to take part in ‘hands-on’ science whilst just walking along a beach – all you have to do is download an instruction book and get recording!

Actions you can take

  1. Find out more about 'Spermwatch'

Did you know?…

MCS launched its Sea Champion volunteer programme in 2012 thanks to funding from M&S

MCS launched its Beachwatch programme in 1994

To date, our beach cleans have removed over 11 million pieces of litter

Become a Sea Champion

Find out more about our ‘Sea Champion’ volunteers and how to join them

Learn more