BBC Winterwatch beamed live from the frozen heights of the Cairngorms this January. In amongst pine martens, squirrels, and burying Martin Hughes-Games in the snow, you may have seen the bright orange flame shell, master builder of a unique habitat. Andy filmed this feature late in 2014 helped by Sue Scott, a marine biologist, writer, and photographer who lives on the beautiful banks of Loch Carron.
Filming flame shells underwater was fascinating. We watched spellbound as these bivalves flicked around like underwater castanets, imitating Animal from the Muppets. But while diving with them, the magical process of how they build was hidden. So we decided to re-home a few flame shells in a large tank for a few days, surrounded by their favourite nest materials, and see what happened.
Nothing at first. Then, slowly, they started to build. An alien-like red limb emerged from the heart of the flame shell, strong enough to lift stones heavier than itself. A gland spun byssal threads that knit the shells, pebbles, and maerl into a labyrinthine nest. This has never been filmed before.
The way flame shells build their nests is amazing. But what’s even more spectacular is what happens next. Just six nests can support 250 species. When they’re able to flourish, flame shells can convert many square metres of once-barren seabed to rich habitat. They transform underwater wastelands into rich ecosystems; build a marine Dubai from the underwater desert.
We hope you enjoy the Winterwatch film as much as we loved discovering Loch Carron’s flame shell.
Images by Andy, broadcast by BBC2, words by Jackie