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information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.

Summary

Description

A frequently gregarious segmented worm that builds tubes from sand or shell fragments. Found intertidally (although occasionally subtidally) in exposed areas. Tubes often densely aggregated forming a honey comb pattern. May form large reefs up to several metres across and a metre deep.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

In Britain, most abundant on the south and west coasts with isolated records form the south east and east coasts. The northern limit is the Outer Hebrides. It is also found on south, west and north coasts of Ireland.

Global distribution

Mediterranean, north Atlantic south to Morocco. The British Isles form the northern limits of the distribution in the north east Atlantic

Habitat

Found on hard substrata on exposed, open coasts with moderate to considerable water movement where sand is available for tube building. Typically on the bottom third of the shoreline but also in the shallow sub-tidal.

Depth range

MTL - 10 metres

Identifying features

  • Usually forms sheets or reefs.
  • Inhabits tube made from coarse, cemented sand or shell grains.
  • Thorax with three pairs of flattened chaetal sheaths.
  • Inner and middle rows of opercular chaetae with asymmetrically angular spines pointing distally and transversely respectively.

Additional information

At low densities tubes are attached to the substratum along the entire length but at greater densities competition for space results in the tubes overlapping and may cause the tubes to be built outwards, away from the substrate. Tube colour varies according to the colour of sand grains

Listed by

- none -

Further information sources

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Biology review

Taxonomy

PhylumAnnelida
ClassPolychaeta
OrderSabellida
FamilySabellariidae
GenusSabellaria
Authority(Linnaeus, 1767)
Recent Synonyms

Biology

Typical abundanceHigh density
Male size range3 -4cm
Male size at maturity
Female size rangeSmall-medium(3-10cm)
Female size at maturity
Growth formTubicolous
Growth rate12cm/year
Body flexibility
Mobility
Characteristic feeding methodActive suspension feeder
Diet/food source
Typically feeds onSeston
Sociability
Environmental positionEpifaunal
DependencyIndependent.
SupportsSubstratum

a variety of associated fauna and flora depending on form and age of colony: particularly mussels, barnacles and ephemeral algae

Is the species harmful?No

Biology information

Size refers to individual worms. It is typically gregarious forming colonies of sheets, hummocks or reefs. In Cornwall, their tubes are up to 20 cm in length and around 5 mm in diameter at the external opening. Each tube has an additional porch over the opening. In northern France, the tubes were reported to grow in length at 12 cm/year.

This species appears to be favoured by elevated winter temperatures associated with cooling water discharges (Bamber & Irving, 1997) but growth is inhibited below 5 C

Communities associated with Sabellaria alveolata are not particularly remarkable being species poor on young dense reef and up to 38 species on older reefs. Honeycomb worm aggregations that bind together mobile cobbles increase heterogeneity.

Habitat preferences

Physiographic preferencesOpen coast
Biological zone preferencesLower eulittoral, Mid eulittoral, Sublittoral fringe, Upper infralittoral
Substratum / habitat preferencesBedrock, Cobbles, Large to very large boulders, Pebbles, Small boulders
Tidal strength preferencesModerately Strong 1 to 3 knots (0.5-1.5 m/sec.), Strong 3 to 6 knots (1.5-3 m/sec.)
Wave exposure preferencesExposed, Moderately exposed, Very exposed
Salinity preferencesFull (30-40 psu)
Depth rangeMTL - 10 metres
Other preferencesNo text entered
Migration PatternNon-migratory / resident

Habitat Information

The honeycomb worm appears to be absent from many exposed peninsulas, probably due to the effects of water movement on recruitment. Although a hard substratum is required for attachment, there needs to be adequate sand or small shell particles from which to construct the tubes.

It is typically found in the low intertidal but occasionally found subtidally (e.g. in the Severn estuary). It typically colonizes bedrock or large boulders but in some sites binds together small cobbles in a complex with mussels.

It has a strong settlement preference for adult tubes or sites currently or previously used by the species.

Life history

Adult characteristics

Reproductive typeGonochoristic (dioecious)
Reproductive frequency Annual episodic
Fecundity (number of eggs)100,000-1,000,000
Generation timeInsufficient information
Age at maturityIn good conditions worms mature within the first year.
SeasonJuly - July
Life span2-5 years

Larval characteristics

Larval/propagule type-
Larval/juvenile development Planktotrophic
Duration of larval stage1-6 months
Larval dispersal potential Greater than 10 km
Larval settlement periodInsufficient information

Life history information

Most individuals have a lifespan of 3 to 5 years but there are records for 7 and even 9 year old individuals. Sabellaria alveolata reefs undergo cycles of development and decay over a period of a few years. Although individual reefs come and go - areas that are good for Sabellaria alveolata tend to remain so.

Spawning occurs each July but actual recruitment levels vary considerably from year to year. Larvae spend between 6 weeks and 6 months in the plankton.

Sensitivity reviewHow is sensitivity assessed?

Physical pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
High Moderate Moderate Low
The species is fixed to the substratum so substratum removal will cause mortality. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take several years.
Low Immediate Not sensitive High
Tolerant to burial under sand for up to several weeks. Feeding and growth will be curtailed. Depending on timing this may interfere with reproduction. Recoverability is almost immediate (Wilson, 1971).
Low Very high Very Low Low
Tube growth is dependent on the presence of suspended particles hence a reduction in siltation may hinder tube construction. An increase in siltation may facilitate tube building but clog up feeding apparatus. Recovery occurs when the population is able to recommence feeding and growing.
No information
Intermediate High Low Low
Species is typically intertidal and so is regularly exposed to drying influences. When exposed to the air the worm retracts into its tube and closes the operculum over the entrance reducing evaporation. Changes in desiccation for the period of a year may cause some of the population to die. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
Intermediate High Low Low
A reduction in the amount of time spent under water could cause a proportion of a colony to die due to restricted feeding. The species also occurs subtidally so a decrease in emergence time will have no effect. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
No information
Intermediate High Low Low
The species inhabits areas with high water flow so an increase in rate is likely to have little effect. A reduction of water flow by two categories is likely to cause exposure to conditions outside the normal range for the species. This may be sufficient to reduce availability of suspended particles, hindering growth and repair and feeding. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
No information
Intermediate High Low Low
The species is typically intertidal. Intolerance assessment is in relation to short term acute temperature change. Growth inhibited below 5 degrees C. Damaged or killed by frost. Long term slight increase in temperature is unlikely to have any effect on British populations as global distribution extends South to Morocco. Long term slight decrease in temperature may reduce viability of populations. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
No information
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive Low
No reliance on visual sense for feeding, reproducing etc.
No information
Intermediate High Low Low
Requires sufficient water action to suspend coarse sand particles in order to build tubes and so is found in quite exposed areas. Most colonies die through eventual break up by wave action. Increased exposure will result in potentially shorter colony life. Reduced exposure may mean the population exists outside of its preferred conditions with insufficient water action to provide sand particles or food. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
No information
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive High
The species is unlikely to respond to noise vibrations
Tolerant Not relevant Not sensitive High
Most polychaetes have photoreceptors but the species is probably unable to resolve moving objects. The worms may retract into tube on disturbance. Whether this is through light detection or mechanical stimulus is uncertain.
Intermediate High Low Moderate
Abrasion through trampling can affect this species but it is surprisingly tolerant (Cunningham et al., 1984). The main cause of colony destruction is through wave action. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement, as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929). Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take several years.
High Moderate Moderate High
Worms are not able to rebuild tubes if removed from them (Wilson 1929).

Chemical pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
No information No information No information Not relevant
Although the larvae are potentially very intolerant of some oil dispersants it is unlikely that Sabellaria alveolata has any special intolerance to chemicals (Holt et al., 1998).
Heavy metal contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Hydrocarbon contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Radionuclide contamination
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Changes in nutrient levels
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Intermediate High Low Low
Species only occurs in fully marine environment, however, as it frequently occurs in the intertidal, it must be able to tolerate some reduced salinity caused by precipitation run off. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
No information
Intermediate High Low Very low
Cole et al. (1999) suggest possible adverse effects on marine species below 4 mg/l and probable adverse effects below 2 mg/l. There is no information about Sabellaria alveolata tolerance to changes in oxygenation. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).

Biological pressures

 IntoleranceRecoverabilitySensitivityEvidence/Confidence
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
No information No information No information Not relevant
Insufficient
information
Intermediate High Low Low
Extraction by bait digging is a possibility. Automatically assessed as intermediate assuming 50 percent removal. Variability in recruitment (dependent on suitable environmental conditions) means that recovery could take a few years. The presence of some remaining adults will assist in larval settlement as this is the preferred substratum (Wilson 1929).
Intermediate High Low Low
Bait collection occurs in Portugal for crabs etc. living in the gaps between worm tubes.

Additional information

Importance review

Policy/legislation

Status

Non-native

Importance information

Few crevice fauna are associated with reefs. The main colonizing species are epifaunal.
Fishermen occasionally dig out the worms from reefs for use as bait.
Well established reefs can exclude other organisms such as weed, barnacles and limpets from the substrate. Sabellaria alveolata reefs are well represented in candidate SACs. Sabellaria alveolata does not have its own Species Action Plan but is covered in its reef form by a Habitat Action Plan.
Actively growing reefs can out-compete all other littoral species for space.

Bibliography

  1. Bamber, R.N. & Irving, P.W., 1997. The differential growth of Sabellaria alveolata (L.) reefs at a power station outfall. Polychaete Research, 17, 9-14.

  2. Campbell, A., 1994. Seashores and shallow seas of Britain and Europe. London: Hamlyn.

  3. Cunningham, P.N., Hawkins, S.J., Jones, H.D. & Burrows, M.T., 1984. The geographical distribution of Sabellaria alveolata (L.) in England, Wales and Scotland, with investigations into the community structure of and the effects of trampling on Sabellaria alveolata colonies. Nature Conservancy Council, Peterborough, Contract Report no. HF3/11/22., University of Manchester, Department of Zoology.

  4. Gruet, Y. & Lassus, P., 1983. Contribution a l'etude de la biologie reproductive d'une population naturelle de l'Annelide Polychete, Sabellaria alveolata (Linnaeus). Annals of the Institute of Oceanography, Monaco, 59, 127 - 140.

  5. Gruet, Y., 1985. Recherches sur l'é cologie des ré cifs d'hermelles édifiés par l'annélide polychète Sabellaria alveolata (Linné). Journal de Recherche Oceanographique, 10, 32-35.

  6. Gruet, Y., 1986. Spatio-temporal changes of sabellarian reefs built by the sedentary polychaete Sabellaria alveolata (Linnaeus) Marine Ecology, Pubblicazioni della Stazione Zoologica di Napoli I, 7, 303-319.

  7. Hayward, P., Nelson-Smith, T. & Shields, C. 1996. Collins pocket guide. Sea shore of Britain and northern Europe. London: HarperCollins.

  8. Holt, T.J., Rees, E.I., Hawkins, S.J. & Seed, R., 1998. Biogenic reefs (Volume IX). An overview of dynamic and sensitivity characteristics for conservation management of marine SACs. Scottish Association for Marine Science (UK Marine SACs Project), 174 pp.

  9. Howson, C.M. & Picton, B.E., 1997. The species directory of the marine fauna and flora of the British Isles and surrounding seas. Belfast: Ulster Museum. [Ulster Museum publication, no. 276.]

  10. JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee), 1999. Marine Environment Resource Mapping And Information Database (MERMAID): Marine Nature Conservation Review Survey Database. [on-line] http://www.jncc.gov.uk/mermaid

  11. National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas website. Available from: http://www.nbnatlas.org.  Accessed 01 April 2017

  12. Pawlik, J.R., 1968. Larval settlement and metamorphosis of gregarious sabellariid polychaetes, Sabellaria alveolata compared with Phragmatopoma californica. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 68, 101-124.

  13. Picton, B.E. & Costello, M.J., 1998. BioMar biotope viewer: a guide to marine habitats, fauna and flora of Britain and Ireland. [CD-ROM] Environmental Sciences Unit, Trinity College, Dublin., http://www.itsligo.ie/biomar/

  14. Smith, J.E. (ed.), 1968. 'Torrey Canyon'. Pollution and marine life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  15. Wilson, D.P., 1929. The larvae of the British sabellarians. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 16, 221-269.

  16. Wilson, D.P., 1968. Some aspects of the development of the eggs and larvae of Sabellaria alveolata (L.). Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 48, 367-86.

  17. Wilson, D.P., 1969. The honey comb worm. Sea Frontiers, 15, 322-29.

  18. Wilson, D.P., 1970a. Additional observations on larval growth and settlement of Sabellaria alveolata. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 50, 1-32.

  19. Wilson, D.P., 1971. Sabellaria colonies at Duckpool, North Cornwall 1961 - 1970 Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 54, 509-580.

Citation

This review can be cited as:

Jackson, A. 2008. Sabellaria alveolata Honeycomb worm. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. Available from: http://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/1129

Last Updated: 29/04/2008