1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Flame shells
Graham Saunders
Three flame shells, each measuring about 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) in length, nestle off the coast of Scotland.
By
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 12/28/2012 12:56:37 PM ET 2012-12-28T17:56:37

A huge, colorful shellfish reef discovered off Scotland's west coast could be the largest of its kind in the world, according to the Scottish government.

Packing at least 100 million bright-orange shells into 4.5 square miles (7.5 square kilometers), the living reef consists of flame shells, a rare saltwater clam found near Scotland. Neon-orange tentacles emerge from between the clam's paired shells, waving gently in the current.

The flame shell reef is located in Loch Alsh, a sea inlet between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland. The overall population of flame shells in the inlet is likely to exceed 100 million and is the largest-known flame shell reef anywhere in the United Kingdom, the Scottish government said in a statement.

"This important discovery may be the largest grouping of flame shells anywhere in the world," Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said in the statement. "And not only are flame shells beautiful to look at, these enigmatic shellfish form a reef that offers a safe and productive environment for many other species."

Flame shells (Limaria hians) build 'nests' by binding gravel and shells together with thin, wiry threads. The shellfish are around 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) in length and group together in such numbers that they cover the seabed with a feltlike organic reef of nest material several inches thick. Flame shell beds are found in only eight sites in Scottish waters.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning
      NOAA

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

"There were some records of flame shells in Loch Alsh, but scientists had no idea of the bed's true size," said Ben James, marine survey and monitoring manager at Scottish Natural Heritage.

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh carried out the Loch Alsh survey on behalf of Marine Scotland.

"Too often, when we go out to check earlier records of a particular species or habitat, we find them damaged, struggling or even gone," said Dan Harries, a marine ecologist with the university's school of life sciences. "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."

The Loch Alsh inlet was surveyed as part of a program to identify new Marine Protected Areas, which help defend marine habitat. The reef's discovery strengthens the case for proposing the inlet as a protected area, said Calum Duncan, Scotland program manager for the Marine Conservation Society.

Reach Becky Oskin at boskin@techmedianetwork.com.Follow her on Twitter @beckyoskin. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Photos: Take a virtual dive

loading photos...
  1. Coral reef on your computer

    The Catlin Seaview Survey and Google present online expeditions that bring the world's coral reefs to your computer screen, via the Street View feature of Google maps. This view of Holmes Reef, in the middle of the Coral Sea, was captured with a high-resolution SVII camera that can produce 360-degree panoramas. The image shows the wave action on a relatively calm day. Click through the slideshow to see more from the Catlin Seaview Survey. (Chris Sammut / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Maori wrasse

    This glimpse of a Maori wrasse comes from the Bait Reef, located on the Outer Great Barrier Reef near the Whitsunday Island Chain. The Maori wrasse (Chelinus undulatus) is mainly found in the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region. The males can grow to 6 feet in length and are colored in hues of blue and green. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Christmas Tree worm

    This Christmas Tree worm was photographed just a second before its tiny blue "trees" disappeared down the coral tube. The colorful spirals are merely respiratory structures that are also used to capture prey. The creature's body is actually inside the burrow. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. My, what big teeth!

    A Harlequin Tuskfish shows off its tusks at Heron Island, a popular diving spot in the southern Great Barrier Reef. The fish may have a clownish appearance, but it's a formidable carnivore that feeds upon a wide array of small fish and invertebrates. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Opal Reef

    Fish swarm over the coral at Opal Reef, a popular diving destination on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. White octopus

    This octopus blends in with its light-colored surroundings near Lady Elliot Island on the southern Great Barrier Reef. The Australian resort island is renowned for eco-tourism. (Susan Berry / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Behind the camera

    Underwater Earth cinematographer Christophe Bailhache works with the SVI camera at the University of Queensland Research Station on Heron Island. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Flying through the sea

    A manta ray zooms through the water off Lady Elliot Island. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Clowning around

    A clownfish nestles among the stingers of a sea anemone. The fish is covered with a slimy mucus that protects it from the sting, and cleans away debris as part of its symbiotic relationship with the anemone. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The reef from above

    An aerial image shows the reef at Lady Elliot Island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Titan of the reef

    A titan triggerfish swims through a coral reef. These fish have often been called "workers of the reef," thanks to their willingness to turn over rocks, bite off pieces of coral and take other measures to remodel their environment. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Lights, camera, action!

    A diver guides the SVII camera through an underwater scene. The imagery can be converted into 360-degree panoramas for Google Street View. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Hanging around

    A green turtle floats in the crystal-clear waters of Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. (Richard Vevers / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bull rays

    Bull rays lie on sand flats off Australia's Heron Island. If you come across them during a dive, it's best to leave them alone: The bull ray's long, whiplike tail carries a venomous stinging spine. In 2006, "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray while he was swimming on the Great Barrier Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Woof!

    The Catlin Seaview Survey's camera goes face to face with a dogface pufferfish. Some think the face and eyes are unusually expressive - while others think this fish is, well, a real dog. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Something's fishy

    Actually, this isn't a fish: It's a cephalopod, an oceanic octopus that was found hitching a ride on the Catlin Seaview Survey's boat. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Whale ahead!

    A humpback whale makes an appearance in the South Pacific waters off Tonga. (Jayne Jenkins / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. In the shadows

    A fish pokes its head out of the coral on Holmes Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Fish with spots

    A blenny blends in with the coral on Holmes Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sunset colors

    The crowns of this Christmas Tree worm on Holmes Reef are highlighted in shades of red and orange. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Fish on fire

    With its yellow-tinged head, its deep red tail and its freakishly long dorsal fin, this fire goby cuts a rakish figure on Holmes Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Two-toned fish

    A fish sports shades of purple and orange on Holmes Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Peekaboo!

    A striped fangblenny pokes its head out of a hole at Holmes Reef in the Coral Sea. "As their name suggests, these blennies have big fangs behind that friendly smile," according to the Catlin Seaview Survey's team. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Spot the fish

    A spotted boxfish is spotted at Holmes Reef. When stressed, the spotted boxfish releases a poison as a defense mechanism. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Where's Wobbegong?

    Can you spot the 6-foot-long shark in this picture from the waters off Lady Elliot Island? The shark is called a Wobbegong - an aboriginal word meaning "shaggy beard." The name refers to the beardlike growths around the shark's mouth. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pop-up fish

    A little blenny pops up from its hole in the lagoon at Lady Elliot Island. (Susan Berry / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Mantis shrimp

    A mantis shrimp sits in its burrow at Lady Elliot Island. Mantis shrimps use their powerful limbs to spear or club their prey by delivering a blow that is equivalent to the force of a bullet. The Catlin Seaview Survey says the blow can be so powerful it vaporizes the water on impact. (Susan Berry / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pretty in pink

    A couple of pink anemonefish hide within their host sea anemone at Lady Elliot Island. (Susan Berry / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Hide and seek

    A false clownfish hides in its host anemone. (Richard Vevers / Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Half-and-half

    The Catlin Seaview Survey's camera captures a half-in, half-out view of the coral at Opal Reef on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (Catlin Seaview Survey) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Courtesy of Jessica Hester

    Family lauds Miranda Lambert for concert gesture

    9/18/2014 12:34:48 AM +00:00 2014-09-18T00:34:48
  1. Twitter cia Greg Bennett

    Social media tipsters hope to solve Philadelphia hate crime case

    9/17/2014 11:25:24 PM +00:00 2014-09-17T23:25:24
  1. Obama: US will not fight another ground war in Iraq

    The U.S. will not send armed forces to fight a ground war in Iraq, President Barack Obama told service members at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, a day after his top military adviser said he could envision recommending the president deploy ground troops.

    9/17/2014 3:51:00 PM +00:00 2014-09-17T15:51:00
  1. Why one dad hates homework as much as his kid does

    9/17/2014 9:06:38 PM +00:00 2014-09-17T21:06:38