Phytoplankton of Morecambe Bay

Wednesday 14th June at 19:30 at Lancaster Maritime Museum

Phase contrast micrograph of phytoplankton, BK April 2023.

Above: Phase contrast micrograph of phytoplankton at Knott End, April 2023. Species depicted come from number of families include Asterionellopsis, Stephanopyxis, Chaetocerus, Pseudo-nitzschia, Odontella and Ditylum, indicating just some of the diversity on our doorstep! Photomicrograph Barry Kaye.

Phytoplankton are the smallest plants on the planet, yet vital to all life. While they drift at the mercy of ocean currents, they are very sensitive to their environment, and are capable of explosive growth when they encounter the right conditions. In this talk we will look at the phytoplankton sampled at Knott End over the last 18 months, to get a glimpse of its diversity, and begin to understand how it changes over time.

Join us on Wednesday 14th June 2023 at 19:30 at Lancaster Maritime Museum to find out more.

Posted: May 30th, 2023
Posted in MCS talks, Science

Mark’s Mini Monsters

A talk by Mark Woombs, looking at some of the zooplankton in Morecambe Bay.

Planktonic worm larvae and the reef they may eventually form.

Above: Planktonic worm larvae (top left, shows micrographs at two stages of development) eventually settle to form reefs up to 2m tall, like this one close to Conger Rock, Morecambe (with Heysham power station in the background). Photos Mark Woombs.

Is it possible that a microscopic worm can develop into this extensive reef close to the town of Morecambe, via a trip around the Irish sea? Come along to our next MCS meeting and find out about this, and many other amazing happenings in Morecambe Bay!

To find out more, join us at the Lancaster Maritime Museum on Wednesday 10th May 2023 at 19:30 for:

Mark’s Mini Monsters – Zooplankton of Morecambe Bay

by Mark Woombs (Lancashire MCS)

Posted: May 2nd, 2023
Posted in MCS talks, Science

The Azolla story: How an amazing plant changed our climate

A talk by Alexandra and Jonathan Bujak (Azolla Foundation)

Carp and ducks eating azolla in China. A fisherman is collecting azolla to feed his livestock.
Above: Carp and ducks eating azolla in China. A fisherman is collecting azolla to feed his livestock. Image rendered by Victor Leshyk from the cover of ‘The Azolla Story’.

49 million years ago a plant called azolla covered the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Azolla Event lasted 1.2 million years, during which time azolla sequestered enormous quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere, and moved our planet’s climate from a greenhouse world to the ice-age climate, with permanent ice and snow at both poles…

If you would like to know more, The Azolla Story: A message from the future by Jonathan Bujak and Alexandra Bujak is available from Amazon.

Alternative Zoom meeting details are available through our Newsletter – you can subscribe here.

All are welcome, we request a donation of £4 to cover costs of room hire and speaker expenses.

Wednesday 11th January 2023 at 19:30 at Lancaster Maritime Museum.

Posted: January 5th, 2023
Posted in Events, Marine science update, MCS talks, Science

Plankton Calendar 2023

MCS WRT calendar 2023
Some highlights from the MCS/WRT Plankton calendar 2023

One of this year’s projects has been to carry out regular plankton samples in the Wyre estuary at the Knott End slipway in conjunction with the Wyre Rivers Trust. Jean has worked up some of Mark’s super photos from the surveys, and put them as pin-ups for the coming 12 months in our calendar. Armed with this, next time you go in the sea, you will know who you are swimming with!

Calendars are on sale at £8 each, proceeds to Lancashire MCS and WRT. Collect at our meetings in December or January. Please note that numbers are limited!

Posted: December 1st, 2022
Posted in Science, Uncategorized

Honeycomb worm reefs at Morecambe

Early morning on Saturday 16th July 2022 we walked out, following the tide, from the Battery at Morecambe to Conger Rock, a large eratic boulder close to the Low Water Springs level between Morecambe and Heysham. The purpose of our walk was to check on the honeycomb worm reefs that had last been seen by the group in this area over thirty years ago!

Above: Lewis, Mark and Jo at Conger Rock; the Sabellaria historically the honeycomb worm reefs started just beyond this point.

Honeycomb worm reefs are built by small worms of the species Sabellaria alveolata, and can be found from close to the high water mark down to extreme low water, where the largest reefs can reach a height of 60cm. The reef is formed from sand grains stuck together to form tubes that protect the worm from predators and dessication when they are exposed at low water.

On our walk we found that while the reef is still present, much of it is in poor condition, showing signs of erosion, with no live worms. The erosion, however, allows us to see the structure of the reef in greater detail, as in the close-up photograph below.

Above: Detail of the honeycomb worm reef, showing the tubes formed from glued-together sand grains. Here the reef is dead, and the matrix between the tubes has been eroded out. It will disintegrate over time, hastened by bad weather.

Honeycomb worm reefs tend to by cyclical, and while many were in a state of decay, there were also sections of reef in relatively good condition. The reefs stretched for a distance of several hundred meters along the low water mark back towards Morecambe.

We enjoyed a super cooked breafast at the Beach Cafe on our return to the Battery!

Barry Kaye, Lancashire MCS

Posted: August 2nd, 2022
Posted in Marine science update, Science, Shore walks

Plankton studies in the Wyre estuary, 2022

From the start of 2022 Mark Woombs, Jean Wilson and myself have been sampling plankton every fortnight from the river Wyre estuary at Knott End. The intention of this study is to refresh our understanding of plankton diversity and dynamics in the Bay area, and contribute to studies on the health of the River Wyre. Phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants – are the base of the marine food web, and contribute approximately 50% of the oxygen we breathe, whilst quietly sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. Zooplankton are (generally microscopic) animals that convert phytoplankton biomass into food that is accessible to the rest of the animals in the world’s oceans.

In estuarine systems there is never really a shortage of plant neutrients. As a consequence there is the opportunity for phytoplankton to be present in high numbers from early spring, as light levels and surface water temperatures rise, through to late autumn, when grazing combined with lowered growth rates (due to reduced light and temperature) finally cut the poulations back.

Above: Preliminary analysis of phytoplankton results from the river Wyre 2022. Increased daylight triggers a massive, but very short, bloom in Odentella mobiliensis. This is followed by a smaller bloom in Coscinodiscus spp.

This does not mean, however, that the same phytoplankton species dominate our samples throughout the year. In fact, our study to date has revealed a dynamic interplay between phytoplankton species, with different species commming to dominate the total population in succession. The most likely cause of the species population collapses is disease, rather than grazing, though we only have direct evidence for this in one of our phytoplankton families, the Coscinodiscus, where the appearance of the fungal disease Lagenisma coscinodisci in late May coincided with a decline in the numbers, particularly of C. wailesii, which had been the dominant member of the Coscinodiscus to that point.

Plankton species taken during the sampling program were used to illustrate our talk to the Royal Society of Biology on 21st May, but we will have a more complete picture of plankton activity in the Wyre at the end of the year, and hope to present this work in more detail then.

Barry Kaye, Lancashire MCS

Posted: August 2nd, 2022
Posted in Marine science update, MCS talks, Science

Loch Sunart, an underwater journey, by Mark Woombs

At the George and Dragon, Wednesday November 10th at 19:30. Donations requested to Lancashire MCS.

Loch Sunart marine life montage by Mark Woombs

Photograph above: Designated a Marine Protected area to protect (bottom images from left to right) flame shells, Northern feather stars and serpulid worms; the protection of Loch Sunart has allowed the recovery of species such as the spur dog, a relative of the catshark (top). All photos by Mark Woombs

Join marine biologist Mark Woombs as he explores the underwater life of Loch Sunart; from the Sound of Mull to the sheltered waters at the head of the Loch by Strontian (the only town in the world to have a chemical element named after it!). Loch Sunart has been designated as a ‘Scottish Marine Protected Area’, and features a wide range of habitats that are home to some of the most interesting and colourful marine life in British waters.

Please help prevent the spread of COVID by taking a Lateral Flow Test on the morning before joining us!

Posted: October 26th, 2021
Posted in Events, MCS talks, Science

Roa Island Shore Walk July 2021

Discarded fishing line.
Discarded fishing line – sadly our first find…

Our first Roa Island shore walk this year took place on Saturday 24th July.  Understandably, given the late decision to hold this, turnout was lower than normal but 5 of us had an interesting time scouring the shore for life. Sadly the first find of any interest was 30-40m of discarded fishing line tangled in the wrack under the walkway to lifeboat station. This took about 20 minutes of patient work to disentangle it so that it could be taken away for disposal. Thankfully the rest of the beach was relatively clear of litter!

Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas). Photo Lewis Bambury.
Pacific oysters (Crassostrea Gigas)

We saw quite a large number of Pacific oysters Crassostrea Gigas (sometimes known as Portuguese Oyster).  These are a non-native commercial species; it’s possible that they have originated from oyster farms in the Menai Straits, although there is an oyster hatchery on Walney Island that puts some immature stock in the Bay to grow on before selling them on to other farms to mature and this may be the source too.

Dislodged sponge, photo Lewis Bambury.
Dislodged sponge

It was noticeable that there were quite a few large pieces of dislodged sponge and sea squirts, probably from deeper water, at the low water line.  It wasn’t clear how these had been dislodged, whether it was manmade disturbance – we didn’t see a dredger while we were there for instance – or a natural process, but it did bring some species to view that we may not have seen otherwise.  For instance these Oaten Pipe hydroids (Tubularia indivisa) living on one of the detached sponges.

Mysid shrimp. Photo Lewis Bambury.
Mysid shrimp captured in a shallow water trawl. Photo Lewis Bambury.

Barry tried some plankton trawls in the shallows where large numbers of mysid shrimp and small (juvenile) fish were swimming against the incomming tide, hoping for it to bring them supper! Microscopic examination revealed a phytoplankton community dominated by pennate diatoms (Proboscia alatum and Rhizosolenia sp.), though we did see one centric diatom Odontella mobiliensis. The trawl also contained some lanceolate Naviculacea (Pleurosigma sp. – probably angulatum), and one example of Bacillaria paxillifera; these are typically benthic/surface dwelling diatoms, but very commony found in shallow water trawls. There were also a number of periwinkle (Littorina littorea) eggs and newly hatched ‘velligers’. Juvenile periwinkles (the ‘velligers’) are planktonic, and use cillia covered extensions of their ‘foot’ (called a ‘vellum’) to swim. This mode of propulsion is very effective in the smaller juveniles, allowing them to make respectable swimming speeds (Olympic qualifiers – for ther size!) as they actively hunt for food, which is usually smaller zooplankton.

Periwinkle egg about to hatch. Micrograph by Barry Kaye.
Periwinkle egg containing two velliger embryos – very close to hatching! Micrograph by Barry Kaye.

Lockdown has meant that the best tides for this have passed us by this year, but this was the first of two dates that we picked as having the chances of interesting finds.  The timing of Spring tides around Morecambe Bay means that the very lowest tides – when we have the best chance of finding some of the creatures that are normally hidden – happen around 6 or 7 am, of 6 or 7 pm, so daylight times are a factor in choosing dates too. 

Our next walk is on the calendar for Wednesday 8th September at 19:00 (Low water 0.95m at 19:42, just before sunset).

Report by Lewis Bambury with additions on microscopy by Barry Kaye.

Posted: July 29th, 2021
Posted in Events, Science, Shore walks

Phytoplankton ID

Photomicrograph of Melosira BK 2020

Our online ID course on Wednesday 20th January 2021 will look at some of the most common phytoplankton sampled from the Morecambe Bay area and the West Coast of Scotland. This is a basic introduction to sampling and identification.

Posted: January 14th, 2021
Posted in MCS talks, Science

Beach survey 2020

The opportunities for communal beach surveys this year are a bit limited, but you can still enjoy a visit to the beach for a (socially distanced) walk or rock-pool hunt, and we have plenty of good beaches to visit around the Bay (so there is no need to crowd!) As we cannot be with you to help you identify what you have found this year; I include a few resources below that might help – so take a photo of what you find, so you can look it up later!

Online photographic guide

Beach finds around Morecambe Bay.
Walking the beaches around Morecambe bay you will find lots of shells – many from cockles – shown live underwater top right above. You can also find evidence of more interesting dwellers in the deeps though: The cuttlebone was one of a pair we found at Half Moon Bay in August 2015 – a live cuttlefish is shown bottom right. Occasionally you will find a dead dogfish on the beach – trapped in the rocks at Heysham point, perhaps, but at the right time of the year you will find lots of mermaid’s purses, which are their egg cases!

National MCS has a nice photographic guide to UK coastal wildlife, which you can access through the link below. The photographs are mostly taken underwater, in the plant or animal’s natural habitat, so you may need to look carefully at a specimen you find in the strand line.

Jellyfish survey 2020

Photo showing two common jellyfish underwater.
The most common jellyfish in the Bay are the Lion’s mane (above left) which can give you a nasty sting (you can see masses of stinging tentacles hanging below the animal in the photo), and the Moon jelly (above right), which is harmless. Lion’s manes can grow to over one hundred meters in length – including their tentacles – making them one of the largest animals on the planet!

Jellyfish are voracious predators on plankton and smaller animals at sea. They live seasonal lives, most die over winter, with a new crop appearing in late spring, and multiplying rapidly to form vast swarms. Fish competed with jellyfish for food, but in some parts of the world, over-fishing has removed this competition, and Jellyfish swarms can become very large indeed.

Unlike fish, jellyfish are not powerful swimmers, and in late summer large numbers from these swarms can be washed up on beaches – where you will often find them beached from the strand line to the water line.

Take care approaching stranded jellyfish – they all rely on stinging cells to paralyse their prey so their tentacles can bring it to their mouths to feed. Jellyfish that live on plankton are safe to handle, but jellyfish that take larger prey items – like small fish – are heavily armed, they will cause painful stings. If you are not sure what you are looking at, don’t touch it, and be aware that fine tentacles may spread out for some distance around the main body or bell, and can stick to shoes, buckets, spades or clothing, and give you a nasty surprise after you have left the beach!

National MCS has a helpful guide to common UK Jellyfish online at the address below. Most of the Jellyfish around Morecambe Bay will be wither Moon Jellyfish (safe), or Lions Manes (look like burst tea bags – can give you a very nasty sting), but we occasionally get rarer individuals or swarms.

You can use the online guide above to identify what you have found, and report more unusual findings to the National MCS below

Local help

We will be happy to try an help you identify plants and animals you find on the beaches around the Bay – if you can take a photo and email it to us at: (replace _AT_ with @). Please tell us where you found it, and whether or not you are happy for us use the photograph on this website.

Barry Kaye

Posted: August 7th, 2020
Posted in Science, Shore walks