Biodiversity & Conservation

Urticina felina on sand-affected circalittoral rock



Image Keith Hiscock - Urticina felina and Ciocalypta penicillus on sand-covered circalittoral rock (MCR.Urt.Cio). Image width ca 60 cm.
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Distribution map

CR.MCR.ByH.Urt recorded (dark blue bullet) and expected (light blue bullet) distribution in Britain and Ireland (see below)

  • EC_Habitats

Ecological and functional relationships

The sub-biotopes of MCR.Urt are dominated by sessile, permanently fixed, suspension feeding invertebrates that are, therefore, dependant on water flow to provide: an adequate supply of food and nutrients; gaseous exchange; remove metabolic waste products; prevent accumulation of sediment, and disperse gametes or larvae. The majority of species found in this biotope are adapted to strong wave action, siltation and a degree of sediment scour. Little is known of ecological relationships in circalittoral faunal turf habitats (Hartnoll, 1998). Most species live independently except that they compete for space and for food. The following text indicates major feeding types. Suspension feeders on bacteria, phytoplankton and organic particulates and detritus include sponges (Ciocalypta penicillus, Polymastia spp. and Cliona celata) and soft corals (Alcyonium digitatum), erect and encrusting bryozoans (e.g. Pentapora fascialis, Flustra foliacea, and Bugula spp.), brittlestars (e.g. Ophiothrix fragilis), barnacles (e.g. Balanus crenatus), caprellid amphipods, porcelain crabs (e.g. Pisidia longicornis), and polychaetes (e.g. Pomatoceros spp.). However, the water currents they generate are probably localized , so that they are still dependant on water flow to supply adequate food.

Passive carnivores of zooplankton and other small animals include, hydroids (e.g. Nemertesia antennina), soft corals (e.g. Alcyonium digitatum), while larger prey are taken by Urticina felina (Hartnoll, 1998).

Sea urchins (e.g. Echinus esculentus are generalist grazers, removing barnacles, ascidians, hydroids and bryozoans and potentially removing all epifauna, leaving only encrusting coralline algae and bedrock. Sea urchins were shown to have an important structuring effect on the community and epifaunal community succession (Sebens, 1985; 1986; Hartnoll, 1998).

Specialist predators of hydroids and bryozoans include the nudibranchs (e.g. Janolus cristatus, Doto spp. and Onchidoris spp.) and pycnogonids, (e.g. Achelia echinata), while the nudibranch Tritonia hombergi and the mesogastropod Simnia patula prey on Alcyonium digitatum.

Scavengers include polychaetes, small crustaceans such as amphipods, starfish and larger decapods such as hermit crabs (e.g. Pagurus bernhardus) and crabs (e.g. Cancer pagurus).

Mobile fish predators are likely to include gobies (e.g. Pomatoschistus spp.), butterfish (Pholis gunnellus), wrasse and eelpout (Zoarces viviparus) feeding mainly on small crustaceans, while species such as flounder (Platichthys flesus) are generalists feeding on ascidians, bryozoans, polychaetes and crustaceans (Sebens, 1985; Hartnoll, 1998)

Intra and interspecific competition occurs for food and space. Filter feeders reduce the concentration of suspended particulates and deplete food to other colonies/individuals downstream (intra and inter specific competition). Sebens (1985, 1986) demonstrated a successional hierarchy, in which larger, massive, thick growing species (e.g. large anemones, soft corals and colonial ascidians) grew over low lying, or encrusting growth forms such as halichondrine sponges, bryozoans, hydroids and encrusting corallines. The epifauna of vertical rock walls became dominated by large massive species, depending on the degree of predation, especially by sea urchins. However, encrusting bryozoans and encrusting corallines may survive overgrowth (Gordon, 1972; Sebens, 1985; Todd & Turner, 1988). In the sub-biotopes of MCR.Urt, the degree of sediment scour and siltation probably exerts a controlling factor on the succession (see temporal change below) and are dominated by species tolerant of sediment scour and high water flow.

Seasonal and longer term change

No information on seasonal or temporal change in MCR.Urt.Cio or related biotopes was found and the following information has been inferred from available studies of subtidal epifaunal communities (Sebens, 1985, 1986; Hartnoll, 1983, 1998).

Seasonal changes
Most of the species in the biotope and sub-biotopes are perennial but may show seasonal changes. For instance, some hydroids and bryozoans, may show annual phases of growth and dormancy or regression. For example, Flustra foliacea becomes dormant in winter, Bugula species die back in winter to dormant holdfasts, while the uprights of Nemertesia antennina die back after 4-5 month and exhibit three generations per year (spring, summer and winter). Hartnoll (1975) found that, in Alcyonium digitatum studied in the Isle of Man, from February through to July all colonies expand and feed regularly. However, from late July through to December the colonies 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) (see MarLIN reviews; Hughes, 1977; Hayward & Ryland, 1998; Hartnoll, 1975, 1998).

Sebens (1985, 1986) described successional community states in the epifauna of vertical rock walls. Clear space was initially colonized by encrusting corallines, rapidly followed by bryozoans, hydroids, amphipods and tube worm mats, halichondrine sponges, small ascidians (e.g. Dendrodoa carnea and Molgula manhattensis), becoming dominated by the ascidian Aplidium spp., or Metridium senile or Alcyonium digitatum. High levels of sea urchin predation resulted in removal of the majority of the epifauna leaving encrusting coralline dominated rock. Reduced predation allowed the dominant epifaunal communities to develop, although periodic mortality (through predation or disease) of the dominant species resulted in mixed assemblages or a transition to another assemblage (Sebens, 1985, 1986). Sea urchin predation may play a significant role in freeing space for colonization in this community. Succession will be dependant on species tolerance to silt and sediment scour.

Community stability
Long term studies of fixed quadrats in epifaunal communities demonstrated that while seasonal and annual changes occurred, subtidal faunal turf communities were relatively stable, becoming more stable with increasing depth and substratum stability (i.e. bedrock and large boulders rather than small rocks) (Osman, 1977; Hartnoll, 1998). Many of the faunal turf are long-lived, e.g. 6 -12 years in Flustra foliacea, over 20 years in Alcyonium digitatum, 8-16 years in Echinus esculentus and probably many hydroids (Stebbing, 1971a; Gili & Hughes, 1995; Hartnoll, 1998).

Habitat structure and complexity

  • The bedrock is covered by a layer of encrusting corallines overgrown by dominant erect bryozoans and hydroids (e.g. Flustra foliacea, Bugula species and Nemertesia antennina) interspersed with cushion-like sponges (e.g. Ciocalypta penicillus, Polymastia spp., Cliona celata), dead men's fingers Alcyonium digitatum and dahlia anemones Urticina felina. The coralline-encrusted rock and the bases of sponges are often covered by sediment.
  • The faunal turf provides interstices and refuges for a variety of small organisms such as nemerteans, polychaetes, and amphipods, while the erect species provide substrata for caprellid amphipods, which use them as 'platforms' to suspension feed.
  • The erect bryozoans and hydroids support a variety of epizoics that use them as substratum and in some cases affect their growth rates. For example, Flustra foliacea supported 25 species of bryozoan, 5 hydroid species, some sessile polychaetes, barnacles, lamellibranchs and tunicates (Stebbing, 1971b). The bryozoans Bugula flabellata, Crisia spp. and Scrupocellaria spp. were major epizoics. Scrupocellaria spp. settled preferentially on the youngest, distal, portions of the frond, possibly to elevate their branches into faster flowing water (Stebbing, 1971b). Similarly, Alcyonidium parasiticum is epizoic on hydroid stems or the bryozoan Cellaria spp. and the sponge Esperiopsis fucorum may grow on the stem of Tubularia species or on the test of ascidians.
  • Mobile species include decapods crustaceans such as shrimp, crabs and lobsters, sea urchins, starfish and fish.
  • Gobies, shannies and butterfish probably utilize available rock ledges and crevices, while large species such as flounder and cod probably feed over a wide area.
  • Pockets of sediment that accumulate between boulders or in crevices (where present) may support benthic infaunal species such as Mya truncata and Sabella pavonina.
  • The biotope and sub-biotopes may show spatial variation in community complexity and exhibit a mosaic of different species patches (Hartnoll, 1998), due to colonization of areas recently cleared by predation, disease or physical disturbance in the process of re-colonization. The upper edges or boulders or rocky outcrops, most directly in water flow, tend to exhibit the most species rich and abundance faunal turfs, while species richness decreases with proximity to the sediment/ rock interface, which favours species such as the sponges Polymastia spp. or the anemone Urticina felina. Areas subject to increased scour or vertical surfaces tend to be dominated by tube worms such as Pomatoceros triqueter (Stebbing, 1971b, Eggleston, 1972b; Sebens, 1985, 1986; Connor et al., 1997a; Brazier et al., 1998; Hartnoll, 1998).
  • Periodic disturbance of the community due to physical disturbance by storms, extreme scour, or fluctuations in predation, especially by sea urchins, may encourage species richness by preventing dominance by a few species (Osman, 1977; Sebens, 1985, 1986; Hartnoll, 1998).


Circalittoral faunal turf biotopes are primarily secondary producers. Food in the form of phytoplankton, zooplankton and organic particulates from the water column together with detritus and abraded macroalgal particulates from shallow water ecosystems are supplied by water currents and converted into faunal biomass. Their secondary production supplies higher trophic levels such as mobile predators (e.g. fish) and scavengers (e.g. starfish and crabs) and the wider ecosystem in the form of detritus (e.g. dead bodies and faeces). In addition, reproductive products (sperm, eggs, and larvae) also contribute to the zooplankton (Hartnoll, 1998). However, no estimates of faunal turf productivity were found.

Recruitment processes

Most of the species within MCR.Urt.Cio produce short-lived, larvae with relatively poor dispersal capacity, resulting in good local recruitment but poor long range dispersal. Although, the biotope occurs within moderately strong to strong water flow that could remove a large proportion of the reproductive output, most reproductive propagules are probably entrained within the reduced flows within the faunal turf or in turbulent eddies produced by flow over the uneven substratum, resulting in turbulent deposition of propagules locally. Many species are capable of asexual propagation and rapidly colonize space. For example:
  • Whilst very little is known about reproduction in the sponges that particularly characterise MCR.Urt.Cio, sponges may proliferate both asexually and sexually. A sponge can regenerate from a broken fragment, produce buds either internally or externally or release clusters of cells known as gemmules which develop into a new sponge. Most sponges are hermaphroditic but cross-fertilization normally occurs. There is a mass spawning of gametes through the osculum, which enter a neighbouring individual in the inhalant current. Fertilized eggs may be discharged into the sea where they develop into a planula larva. But in the majority of species development is viviparous, whereby the larva develops within the sponge and is then released. Larvae have a short planktonic life of a few hours to a few weeks, so that dispersal is probably limited and asexual reproduction probably results in clusters of individuals.
  • Hydroids are often the first organisms to colonize available space in settlement experiments (Gili & Hughes, 1995). Nemertesia antennina releases planulae on mucus threads, that increase potential dispersal to 5 -50m, depending on currents and turbulence (Hughes, 1977). Most species of hydroid in temperate waters grow rapidly and reproduce in spring and summer. Few species of hydroids have specific substrata requirements and many are generalists. Hydroids are also capable of asexual reproduction and many species produce dormant, resting stages, that are very resistant of environmental perturbation (Gili & Hughes, 1995). Hughes (1977) noted that only a small percentage of the population of Nemertesia antennina in Torbay developed from dormant, regressed hydrorhizae, the majority of the population developing from planulae as three successive generations. Rapid growth, budding and the formation of stolons allows hydroids to colonize space rapidly. Fragmentation may also provide another route for short distance dispersal.
  • The brooded, lecithotrophic coronate larvae of many bryozoans have a short pelagic life time of several hours to about 12 hours (Ryland, 1976). In temperate waters most bryozoans species tend to grow rapidly in spring and reproduce maximally in late summer, depending on temperature, day length and the availability of phytoplankton (Ryland, 1970).
  • Echinoderms are highly fecund, producing long-lived planktonic larvae with high dispersal potential but recruitment in echinoderms is poorly understood, often sporadic, variable between locations and dependant on environmental conditions such as temperature, water quality and food availability. Recruitment was reported to be sporadic in Echinus esculentus, e.g. Millport populations showed annual recruitment, whereas few recruits were found in Plymouth populations between 1980-1981 (Nichols, 1984). Bishop & Earll (1984) suggested that the population of Echinus esculentus at St Abbs had a high density and recruited regularly whereas the Skomer population was sparse, ageing and had probably not successfully recruited larvae in the previous 6 years. In Ophiothrix fragilis recruitment success is heavily dependent on environmental conditions including temperature and food availability. In years after mild winters Ophiothrix fragilis occurred in extremely high densities in the Oosterschelde estuary in Holland (Smaal, 1994). However, echinoderms such as Echinus esculentus, and Asterias rubens are mobile and widespread and are likely to recruit by migration from other areas.
  • Anthozoans, such as Alcyonium digitatum and Urticina felina are long lived with potentially highly dispersive pelagic larvae and are relatively widespread. They are not restricted to this biotope and would probably be able to recruit rapidly (refer to the Key Information reviews).
  • Mobile epifauna will probably recruit from the surrounding area as the community develops and food, niches and refuges become available, either by migration or from planktonic larvae. For example, Hatcher (1998) noted that the number of mobile epifaunal species steady increased over the year following deployment of settlement panels in Poole Harbour.

Time for community to reach maturity

No information was found on the development of MCR.Urt.Cio and the following has been inferred from studies of similar epifaunal communities (Sebens, 1985, 1986; Hartnoll, 1998).

The recolonization of epifauna on vertical rock walls was investigated by Sebens (1985, 1986). He reported that rapid colonizers such as encrusting corallines, encrusting bryozoans, amphipods and tubeworms recolonized within 1-4 months. Ascidians such as Dendrodoa carnea, Molgula manhattensis and Aplidium spp. achieved significant cover in less than a year, and, together with Halichondria panicea, reached pre-clearance levels of cover after 2 years. A few individuals of Alcyonium digitatum and Metridium senile colonized within 4 years (Sebens, 1986) and would probably take longer to reach pre-clearance levels.

Jensen et al. (1994) reported the colonization of an artificial reef in Poole Bay, England. They noted that erect bryozoans, including Bugula plumosa, began to appear within 6 months, reaching a peak in the following summer, 12 months after the reef was constructed. Similarly, ascidians colonized within a few months e.g. Aplidium spp. Sponges were slow to establish with only a few species present within 6-12 months but beginning to increase in number after 2 years, while anemones were very slow to colonize with only isolated specimens present after 2 years (Jensen et al., 1994.). In addition, Hatcher (1998) reported a diverse mobile epifauna after a years deployment of her settlement panels.

Hydroids are often initial colonizing organisms in settlement experiments and fouling communities (Standing, 1976; Brault & Bourget, 1985; Sebens, 1986; Jensen et al., 1994; Hatcher, 1998). In settlement experiments the hydroids Cordylophora caspia, Obelia dichotoma and Obelia longissima colonized artificial substrata within ca 1-3 months of deployment (Standing, 1976; Brault & Bourget, 1985: Sandrock et al., 1991). Once colonized the hydroids ability to grow rapidly and reproduce asexually is likely to allow them to occupy space and sexually reproduce quickly.

Flustra foliacea is the dominant species in this biotope. New colonies of Flustra foliacea take at least 1 year to develop erect growth and 1-2 years to reach maturity, grow slowly (Stebbing, 1971a; Eggleston, 1972a), and would probably several years to reach high abundance, depending on environmental conditions. Recruitment may be enhanced in areas subject to sediment abrasion, where less tolerant species are removed, making more substratum available for colonization, especially if larval release in spring coincides with the end of winter storms. The wreck of a small coaster (the M.V. Robert) off Lundy became dominated by erect bryozoans, including occasional Flustra foliacea, within 4 years of sinking, when it was first surveyed (Hiscock, 1981).

Overall, encrusting bryozoans, hydroids, and ascidians will probably develop a faunal turf within less than 2 years, and Flustra foliacea can evidently colonize and reach an abundance of occasional (1-5% cover) within 4 years. Slow growing species such as Flustra foliacea, Pentapora fascialis, and some sponges and anemones, will probably take many years to develop significant cover, so that this biotope may take between 5 -10 years to develop an stable community after disturbance, depending on local conditions.

Additional information


This review can be cited as follows:

Hiscock, K. 2002. Urticina felina on sand-affected circalittoral rock. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Sub-programme [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 26/11/2015]. Available from: <>