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The Underwater Garden: An Exploration of Anemones in Scotland’s Seas


Orange Anemone
Orange Anemone

Lawson Wood showcases the vibrant anemones adding a splash of colour to dives in the southeast of Scotland.

Photographs by Lawson Wood.

An Early Introduction to Sea Anemones

Anemones come in various vibrant colours...
Anemones come in various vibrant colours…

Having grown up at the coast in southeast Scotland in Eyemouth, my introduction to the world of sea anemones was from the dark bloodred blobs that were exposed at low tide. It was only when I looked deeper into the rock pools that I could see that the little red blobs actually had a ring of tentacles and underneath these tentacles were brilliant blue spots – wow! As children we would gently push our fingers into the centre for feeding, its of the red blobs, where they felt like they were being ‘almost’ sucked in, tentacles are slightly hence we called them ‘blood-suckers’!

...and a wide range of shapes and sizes
…and a wide range of shapes and sizes

The Beadlet Anemone: A Childhood Fascination

This anemone is actually the beadlet anemone (Actinia equina) and is found in the sub-littoral zone (that zone between the high and low tide mark), where they appear to be quite happy being exposed to the air, but obviously relieved when they are covered by the sea once more. Though they are more usually red in colour, they can come in shades of brown and green. Often confused with this anemone is the strawberry anemone (Actinia fragacea), similarly red in colour but the outer trunk is covered in white spots (like its namesake). I once used to keep a small saltwater aquarium with critters from our local rockpools in Eyemouth and watched a beadlet anemone deliver its babies by dipping a tentacle into its body cavity and bringing forth a tiny miniature anemone and placing it on the rock at its base. I sat for hours watching this amazing spectacle.

Did you know?

As sea anemones have an incomplete gut, the mouth also functions as an anus! Waste and undigested matter is excreted through this hole.

The Elegant Anemone: A Spectrum of Colours

Fireworks Anemones
Fireworks Anemones

Similarly sized, but more varied in colour are the elegant anemones (Sagartia elegans). These are found in all water depths, usually on a hard substrate of rock, shipwreck or wall, but sometimes found on larger mollusc shells. Colour variations range from pink to purple, orange to white and every shade in between. Often confused with Sagartia is Actinothoe sphyrodeta, which is also very widespread and has a brilliant orange or white disc surrounded by rings of brilliant white tentacles. This anemone’s column is finely striped.

Jewel Anemones: The Competition of Colours

Some of the most-colourful anemones, yet very small and mostly translucent with different colour strains and large colonies, tend to compete with their cousins of other colour variations. These are the jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis).

This anemone is distinct in that it can form large sheets of many individuals and all are characterized by their knobbly tips to their tentacles. More commonly found in southern latitudes (I first encountered them on a dive trip to the Eddystone Lighhouse with Chas Brill and Pete Bignell), I have always found them up and down the west coast and as far west as you can dive at St Kilda. Recently I have found single specimens in my home territory of St Abbs and Eyemouth and now we have found the first large (45cm diameter) group of jewel anemones just south of Eyemouth in my favourite dive site – the Burnmouth Caves.

The Snakelocks Anemone: A Migratory Species

Snakelocks Anemone
Snakelocks Anemone

Also recently I found my first snakelocks anemone (Anemonia viridis) just north of St Abbs Head. I guess that this is another west coast species that is gradually making its way down the east coast of Britiain. This particular species has a couple of interesting qualities, the first is that its tentacles are rarely if ever retracted and the other is that when seen under ultra-violet light, it glows with natural fluorescence. Commonly found in fairly shallow water, deeper rock pools and even on seagrass stalks, it is a rather striking anemone, if only a dull green in colour, with purple tips.

The Curious Cloak Anemone: A Hermit Crab's Companion

One of the more-curious anemone species is the cloak anemone (Adamsia carciniopodos). The ‘cloak’ name kind of gives the nature of the species away, as this creamy coloured anemone with its reddish purple spots forms a cloak around the shell occupied by a hermit crab, not just any old hermit crab, but a specific species which appears to be only associated with the anemone. Pagarus prideaux drags this anemone all over and usually the mouth and tentacles of the cloak anemone are found underneath the shell. I can only assume that it feeds on detritus from the seabed, as well as the remnants of the untidy eating habits of its host hermit crab. Should danger threaten this anemone, it fires out purplish or white sticky threads as a form of defence.

Burrowing Anemones: Deep Water Dwellers

Burrowing anemone
Burrowing anemone

In deeper waters we have several burrowing anemones, some found in all substrates and others preferring the deeper, muddy seabeds of the Scottish sea lochs. One of the largest is the fireworks anemone (Pachycerianthus multiplicatus). Just recently I was photographing these with Dan Bolt at Inverary in Loch Fyne, but the most common found on all coasts is the burrowing anemone (Cerianthius lloydii). This anemone prefers deeper water and low light levels, particularly at night, where they appear through the seabed and stretch their tentacles into the current to catch any planktonic prey. The tentacles are usually banded and it is not classed as a true anemone because of its disposition to live in mud or fine sand, rather than being attached to a more stable and solid structure.

Another bottom dweller is peachia (Peachia cylindrica), often well hidden away beneath loose gravel and shell fragments. It has very distinct large tentacles and is multistriped and banded in shades of brown and cream.

Dahlia Anemones: The Long-Lived Beauties

Dahlia anemone
Dahlia anemone

In my home waters in the southeast of Scotland are my personal favourites – the dahlia anemones.

Who wants to live forever?

They are known to be long-lived and species have been recorded at over 80 years old. As a number of species are able to clone themselves, they are therefore considered to live indefinitely, should they survive the usual predations.

There are two species found here, one in shallow waters and the other in deeper seas. The shallow water species can be found on the lower shore and rock pools and is Urticina felina. It is rather sturdy in appearance and comes in multiple colours. The column is knobbly and this species often has gravel, shell fragments and even algae which stick to the column, rendering it very well camouflaged.

My favourite is the deeper species Urticina eques. This anemone’s colouration is incredibly flamboyant with brilliantly striped tentacles and matching markings in the central disc around the mouth. The column never has any detritus attached to it. Quite a number of critters like to hide under the spread of its tentacles, usually velvet swimming crabs, shrimps and scorpionfish. Growing around 23cm at St Abbs Head, there is a particular dive called The Anemone Gardens and these rocky valleys are literally covered in these superb dahlia anemones in depths usually below 15m.

The Pink Anemone: A Large, Current-Loving Species

The pink anemone (Bolocera tuediae) is another large species, very similar in shape to the dahlia anemones, but a uniform pinkish beige in colour. Preferring more current-swept areas for feeding, its tentacles are slightly ribbed and able to be detached if attacked. This species has an association with the northern prawn or pink shrimp (Pandalus montagui).

The Plumose Anemone: A Tall, Budding Species

'baby' plumose anemones
‘baby' plumose anemones

The tallest of the anemones is the plumose anemone (Metrdium senile) – not ‘plumrose’ anemones as so many people think it is called! This plumed anemone comes in three colour variations – orange, white and green.

There is also a dwarf species of the orange variety. It was once thought that this dwarf species were just lots of young congregating together and were small due to the competition around them. However, it would appear through scientific research that this is being recognised as a true sub-species. This dwarf species is found almost exclusively under the arches of Cathedral Rock off St Abbs harbour.

The Sea Loch Anemone: A Common, Yet Noteworthy Species

Velvet swimming crab with a closed anemone
Velvet swimming crab with a closed anemone

The regularly sized species can be found over 30cm tall as they stretch out into the current. Reproducing by asexual budding, where small pieces of the adult break off to form new anemones, adults are often found with a ring of young anemones around the base. Off St Abbs Head you are treated to vast numbers of this anemone with their vertical columns and large fine plumes of tentacles, spreading from undulating lobes.

While I am concentrating on the flowers in my garden, I do have to mention the sea loch anemone (Protanthea simplex). Regarded as being very common on vertical sea loch walls, the tentacles are long and translucent and the central cup is pale orange to pink. I mention this anemone because (despite it being common), I was credited with the first recording of this anemone in British waters back in the early 1970s.

A Lifelong Fascination with Anemones

Anemones have always been my great delight since I was a child spending all my spare time at the seaside and exploring rock pools. Now many years later, my love for these colourful yet deadly critters is still the same, filled with awe and wonder and to marvel at their amazing lifestyle and infinite colour variations.

Aerial shot of the Scottish coastline
Aerial shot of the Scottish coastline

Home is where you make it

Surprisingly, anemones are fairly adept at moving. Normally they are all quite sedentary in nature and once they have a firm foothold will not leave it, particularly if there is a steady stream of water across the tentacles providing a regular source of food. They will detach and move due to competition and attack by their fellow species or other predators.

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #67.

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