Marine worms light up foot prints

May 17th, 2011 by Dr. Paul Chambers

A friend reported recently that his footprints glowed when walking at night on a beach on the south-east coast of Jersey.

When the sediment (a poorly sorted gravelly sand) was disturbed, there were a series of brief but bright pinpoints of light, some of which glowed for a few seconds. If the sediment was kicked then a shower of ‘sparks’ was emitted, a bit like kicking an ember from a fire.

I collected some of the bioluminescent sediment from several locations and examined it under a microscope. The only animal common to all samples was a worm of about 4mm in length.

This worm was found in the sample of sediment that glowed (click image to expand - ©Paul Chambers)

The worm is found on the middle and lower shore.  The worms glow when on the sediment surface but seem to be most common at a depth of about 2 to 5 cm.  The glowing sediment has been seen during the full moon and on moonless nights as well.

This worm is a cirratulids and may be in the genus Caulleriella. (click image to expand - ©Paul Chambers)

Marine worm experts believe the glowing worms are most likely to be cirratulids possibly in the genus Caulleriella.  These species are known to bioluminesce.  One of these species, Caulleriella bioculata, has been reported from the area so this might be the identity of the glowing worms.

If you observe light emitting inter-tidal sediment in Guernsey please let Sustainable Guernsey know.


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