The secret life of Lugworms – ‘citizen scientists’ needed to help shed light on the sex-life of this important coastal species

Typical lugworm casts- here on a beach in south wales.Typical lugworm casts- here on a beach in south wales.Love is in the air along our coastlines this autumn and Bangor University is asking people in north Wales to keep an eye out for signs of passion in the lugworm population.

The lugworm – Arenicola marina - is a vital source of food for wader birds and fish, and the species plays an important role in fisheries as a source of bait.

But spending their lives burrowed deep in the sediment, opportunities to find the perfect mate are limited. Instead, the males release sperm which collects in ‘puddles’ on the surface of the sand. When the tide comes in, the sperm is washed down into the burrows of the females and fertilises her eggs.

Very specific environmental conditions are needed to trigger the release of the sperm and the egg at the same time and very little is known about the process.

Now scientists are calling on members of the public to join the project as ‘citizen scientists’ and help to fill in the knowledge gaps.

Dubbed ‘Spermwatch’, the project is part of a wider conservation project called Capturing our Coast, a partnership between universities, conservation and research organisations including Bangor University, Newcastle University, Marine Conservation Society and Earthwatch. Capturing our Coast is a three year programme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Porth Trwyn on Anglesey, a typical Welsh beach where lugworm can be found.Porth Trwyn on Anglesey, a typical Welsh beach where lugworm can be found.Professor Stuart Jenkins, Capturing Our Coast Principal Investigator, Bangor University, School of Ocean Sciences, said: "Anyone who takes a walk at low tide on a sandy beach will be familiar with the coiled casts of lugworms.  This project allows us, through engaging with hundreds of citizen scientists, to get deeper insight into their reproductive life around the UK.  Such simultaneous observations over a broad geographic area simply wouldn’t be possible through any other means.”

Dr Jacqui Pocklington, Project Co-ordinator from Newcastle University said: “This is a great way for people to get involved in scientific research which is directly helping conservation of marine species. Without public involvement, it would take years to gather the kind of information we need so every bit of data the public collects is vital.”  

Megan Evans, Earthwatch Institute said: “Projects such as Capturing our Coast are important, because responsibility for the marine environment belongs to us all, and everyone should have an opportunity to contribute.”

The study starts with a launch event at Llanfairfechan beach on 1st October (between 3pm and 6pm) and there are five set periods over the coming months in which people are asked to collect data. It should take about 45 minutes and is ideal to form part of a beach walk – all you have to do is download an instruction book from http://www.capturingourcoast.co.uk/spermwatch and get recording.

Publication date: 28 September 2016