What made these swirls in the sand?

The Question: I was recently vacationing in Victoria and was so enchanted by the incredible creatures on the beach. What incredible life! I was wondering what makes the little swirls of sand that spiral up like little mounds. It looks almost like worm poop.

Submitted by: Audrey, British Columbia, Canada

The Short Answer: Your worm poop instincts are good. The swirls are indeed the “castings” of a worm. Various species of lugworms are found in sandy marine mud all over the world. Based on your location on the northwest coast of North America, the ones who made the swirls you saw were probably Abarenicola pacifica. The worms live in a U-shaped or J-shaped burrow. They ingest the sandy mud at one end, and excrete digested sand at the other. They can process a cubic centimeter or more of sand every hour. The worms digest the bacteria and other microorganism in the sand, in much the same way that earthworms process soil.

Here is a short video of Abarenicola pacifica that shows them casting underwater: http://vimeo.com/40197385

Lugworms are a favorite bait of fisherman all over the world, and in this video, you can see a fisherman collecting lugworms by using a sand pump: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzfCbmLnLKE

For more information about Abarenicola pacifica, go to: http://www.asnailsodyssey.com/LEARNABOUT/LUGWORM/lugwBurr.php

Interesting Escape mechanism:
Fishermen aren’t the only ones who like lugworms. They are eaten by shorebirds and also by fish when the tide covers them. When a bird or fish grabs a lugworm, the lugworm often releases its tail, similar to the way a lizard escapes from predators by releasing its tail. If a lugworm loses its tail, it can regrow it.

Cite this article as: Pelletier, TC. (August 19, 2012). What made these swirls in the sand? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/what-made-these-swirls-in-the-sand/ on July 3, 2020.

10 thoughts on “What made these swirls in the sand?”

  1. Interesting. I’d never heard of a lugworm, aguhotlh apparently there are some lugworm varieties also found on this side of the Atlantic. (Of course, aguhotlh I live near the coast now, I grew up ninety miles upstream from NY City, on the Hudson River, and spent a quarter century or so living even further into upstate New York, so I’m not exactly an expert on the ocean shore.) Still, I love a walk along the beach any time of year.

  2. We found lots of piles like those described on a pristine beach in northern Mozambique this past weekend. A few of the piles were growing as we watched, absolutely fascinating!

  3. I saw these all over in the water in Negril.Jamaica..i was afraid to step on them and had to research it.

  4. I was vacationing in the Bahia Conception area of the Sea of Cortez and saw lots of these piles, but much larger- probably 10-15 cm high and up to 30 cm across. The area was very loose sand, and the piles looked like sand contained in a mucus covering that dissolved back into loose sand when prodded. We also found a few small snails in and around the piles, but not consistently. Was it the same worms that would have made the piles found in Victoria?

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