A HUGE colony of elusive, brightly coloured shellfish has been found off the west coast of Scotland.
A survey of Loch Alsh, a sea inlet between Skye and the Scottish mainland, uncovered an extensive bed of flame shells, believed to be in excess of 100 million, that is the largest known in the UK and possibly the world.
Wildlife and environmental protection bodies have said that the discovery emphasised the need for government protection of the area.
The small, scallop-like species has numerous neon-orange tentacles that emerge between the creature’s two shells. Flame shells group on the seabed, and their “nests” create a living reef that supports hundreds of other species.
The Loch Alsh flame shell reef is much larger than expected, covering an area of 75 hectares. The discovery was made during work to identify new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Marine Scotland co-ordinated the programme of eight surveys during 2012, including Loch Alsh and covering more than 640 square miles of sea.
Dr Dan Harries, of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Life Sciences, who carried out the work on behalf of the government, said: “Too often, when we go out to check earlier records of a particular species or habitat, we find them damaged, struggling or even gone.
“We are delighted that in this instance we found not just occasional patches but a huge and thriving flame shell community extending right the way along the entrance narrows of Loch Alsh. This is a wonderful discovery for all concerned.”
Flame shells build “nests” by binding gravel and shells together with thin, wiry threads.
Internationally, flame shells are considered scarce, and beds of them are found in only eight sites in Scottish waters.
The shellfish, which are about 4cm long, group in such numbers that the seabed is covered by a felt-like reef of nest material, several centimetres thick.
In sufficient quantities, the colonies can help raise and stabilise the seabed, making it more attractive for other creatures.
In one study in Loch Fyne, six nest complexes supported 19 species of algae and 265 species of invertebrates.
Flame shell reefs are good hunting grounds for young fish, and offer a good environment for scallop larvae.
Calum Duncan, Scotland programme manager for the Marine Conservation Society, said the research highlighted the need to protect the area. He added: “Our ‘Seasearch’ work also revealed the importance of this sea loch system for fireworks anemones.”
Dr Richard Luxmoore, senior nature conservation adviser at the National Trust for Scotland, said: “The existing Special Area of Conservation does not protect these delicate and beautiful animals so we are delighted to see that the whole loch system has been proposed as an MPA.”