BIOTIC Species Information for Alcyonium digitatum
|Researched by||Georgina Budd||Data supplied by||MarLIN|
|Refereed by||Dr Richard G. Hartnoll|
|Scientific name||Alcyonium digitatum||Common name||Dead man's fingers|
|MCS Code||D597||Recent Synonyms||None|
|Additional Information||May be confused with Alcyonium glomeratum, which prefers sites sheltered from wave action or tidal streams. It is blood red or rust coloured (occasionally pale orange or yellowish), has relatively slender branches, and a softer, more flaccid texture but a rough surface. In Alcyonium glomeratum the colonies are also more contractile, and cross sections through the fingers show numerous cavities.|
|Taxonomy References||Manuel, 1988, Hayward & Ryland, 1995b, Hickson, 1901, Howson & Picton, 1997,|
||Feeding method||Active suspension feeder
|Typical food types||Phytoplankton & zooplankton||Habit||Erect|
|Bioturbator||Not relevant||Flexibility||Low (10-45 degrees)|
|Height||Up to 20 cm.||Growth Rate||Insufficient information|
|Adult dispersal potential||>10km||Dependency||Independent|
|General Biology Additional Information||Cycles of activity
Alcyonium digitatum normally spends part of each day with its polyps expanded, during which time the colony is actively feeding, and part of the day contracted when the tentacles and columns of the polyps are withdrawn into the body of the colony (Hartnoll, 1975). The diurnal periodicity was studied by Ceccatty et al., (1963) in tideless conditions, who observed three to five periods of expansion in every 24 hours, with no co-ordination between colonies. In contrast, Hickson (1892; 1895) observed a marked tidal rhythm of expansion and contraction in colonies within Plymouth Sound.
From February through to July all colonies expand and feed regularly. However, from late July through to December the colonies of Alcyonium digitatum remain contracted, during which time they do not feed and assume a shrunken appearance with a reddish or brownish colour. The change of colour is a result of the periods of inactivity as the surface of the colonies become covered with a layer of epibiota (diatoms and prostrate thalloid and filamentous algae initially, from which arises a forest of erect algae and hydroids). The amphipod Jassa falcata also builds its mucous and detritus tubes amongst the other epibiota, adding to and consolidating the covering (Hartnoll, 1975). Once the colonies recommence expansion in December the epibenthic film is sloughed off. The season of prolonged inactivity coincides with the final months of gonad maturation and the shedding of the epibenthic film immediately precedes the spawning of the gametes (see reproduction) (Hartnoll, 1975; 1977)Feeding
Roushdy & Hansen (1961) demonstrated filtration of phytoplankton by Alcyonium digitatum using radiolabelled algae. In Alcyonium digitatum the current maintained in and out of the polyps by ciliary action not only conveys oxygen but also constantly brings a supply of food into reach (Hickson, 1901).
Hickson (1895) describes the microscopic structure of Alcyonium digitatum.
|Biology References||Hartnoll, 1975, Hartnoll, 1977, Allmon & Sebens, 1988, Mackie, 1987, Hickson, 1892, Ceccatty et al., 1963, Stock, 1988, Roushdy & Hansen, 1961, Hickson, 1895, Hickson, 1901, Graham, 1988,|
|Distribution and Habitat|
|Distribution in Britain & Ireland||Found on all British and Irish coasts.|
|Global distribution||Alcyonium digitatum is recorded along the Atlantic Coasts of Europe from Portugal to Norway, in Iceland.|
|Biogeographic range||Not researched||Depth range||Low water (Springs) to 50 m|
|Migratory||Non-migratory / Resident|
|Distribution Additional Information||
|Substratum preferences||Large to very large boulders
Artificial (e.g. metal/wood/concrete)
|Physiographic preferences||Open coast
|Biological zone||Upper Circalittoral
|Wave exposure||Very Exposed
|Tidal stream strength/Water flow||Strong (3-6 kn)
Moderately Strong (1-3 kn)
|Salinity||Variable (18-40 psu)
Full (30-40 psu)
|Habitat Preferences Additional Information|
|Distribution References||Manuel, 1988, Hayward & Ryland, 1995b, Hartnoll, 1975, Hiscock, 1983, Sebens, 1983,|
|Reproductive Season||December to February||Reproductive Location||As adult|
|Reproductive frequency||Annual episodic||Regeneration potential||Yes|
|Life span||21-50 years||Age at reproductive maturity||2-3 years|
|Generation time||1-2 years||Fecundity||1,000 - 100,000|
|Egg/propagule size||500 µm||Fertilization type||External|
|Reproduction Preferences Additional Information||Life span
Evidence suggests that Alcyonium digitatum has an extensive life span. Observations of marked colonies showed that colonies 10-15 cm in height were between 5 and 10 years old (Hartnoll, unpublished). The life span certainly exceeds 20 years as colonies have been followed for 28 years in marked plots (Lundälv, pers. comm., in Hartnoll, 1998).
The majority of colonies are either male or female, < 1% are hermaphroditic and these have both apparently functional ova and testes which may develop within the same polyp (Hartnoll, 1977). The soft coral genus Alcyonium is among the most reproductively diverse invertebrate taxa known. The genus includes species that vary both in mode of reproduction and sexual expression (Mc Fadden, 2000).
The development of the gametes takes 12 months, so the earliest onset of sexual maturity can only be in the second year, at which point the smallest of colonies have usually attained a wet weight of 1g. However in some colonies maturity is delayed until the third or subsequent year, by which time the colony may have attained a wet weight of 20 g (Hartnoll, 1975; 1977).
The annual reproductive cycle commences when the gametes begin to develop during December and January; the testes have a diameter of 0.05 mm and the ova 0.15 mm at this stage. The ova steadily increase in size and exceed 0.5 mm in diameter by July / August, and reach a final diameter of 0.6 mm in October which is retained until spawning in December. The mature ova are bright orange in colour owing to their heavy yolk content. Growth of the testes is less regular. The onset of growth occurs in May when they rapidly increase in size and are opaque white in appearance. A second period of slow growth occurs from August to December (Hartnoll, 1975). In both sexes the gonads develop on the edges of the mesenteries (partitions that divide the coelenteron), and lie within the gastric cavity, attached to the mesentery, until spawning occurs. The maturing gonads occlude the gastric cavity of the polyps and it is postulated that the quiescent period in the annual cycle of activity of Alcyonium digitatum is caused by the inability to feed, however the same seasonal cessation of activity occurs in a proportion of sexually immature colonies. White colonies of Alcyonium digitatum were reported to spawn slightly earlier than orange colonies and this may favour a degree of sexual isolation between the two colour morphs (Hartnoll, 1975).
Alcyonium digitatum spawns during December and January. Gametes are released into the water and fertilization occurs externally. The embryos are neutrally buoyant and float freely for 7 days. The embryos give rise to actively swimming lecithotrophic planulae which may have an extended pelagic life (See below) before they eventually settle (usually within one or two further days) and metamorphose to polyps (Matthews, 1917; Hartnoll, 1975).
Survival in the pelagic zone
In laboratory experiments, several larvae of Alcyonium digitatum failed to settle within 10 days, presumably finding the conditions unsuitable, these larvae proved to be able to survive 35 weeks as non-feeding planulae. After 14 weeks some were still swimming and after 24 weeks the surface ciliation was still active although they rested on the bottom of the tanks, by the end of the experiment at 35 weeks the larvae had shrunk to a diameter of 0.3 mm. This ability to survive for long periods in the plankton may favour the dispersal and eventual discovery of a site suitable for settlement (Hartnoll, 1975).
Advantages of mid-winter spawning
The combination of spawning in winter and the long pelagic life span may allow a considerable length of time for the planulae to disperse, settle and metamorphose ahead of the spring plankton bloom. Young Alcyonium digitatum will consequently be able to take advantage of an abundant food resource in spring and be well developed before the appearance of other forms that may otherwise compete for the same substrata. In addition because the planulae do not feed whilst in the pelagic zone they do not suffer by being released at the time of minimum plankton density and they may also benefit by the scarcity of predatory zooplankton which would otherwise feed upon them (Hartnoll, 1975).
|Reproduction References||Hartnoll, 1975, Hartnoll, 1977, Matthews, 1917, Hartnoll, 1998, McFadden et al., 2000,|