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Living Laboratory Found on Shoreline Statues

Liverpool scientists have discovered an unlikely habitat on a Merseyside beach that has provided a new home for marine life.

A team from the University of Liverpool’s School of Biological Sciences have found that the 100 life-size statues which make up Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ art installation on Crosby Beach have become a haven for a settlement of a particular breed of barnacle - Elminius modestus.

Although the barnacles have been present on North West shorelines since the 1950s, they originate from half way across the world on the coasts of Australia. They are never normally found on sandy beaches such as Crosby but the hard surface of the sculptures has provided them with an ideal habitat for settlement as well as offering scientists an important insight into factors influencing colonisation.

The installation of the cast iron figures - each a replica of the artist’s own body, and identical in size, shape and material - offer a perfectly replicated study environment to test for the effects of different levels of exposure to the environment, currents and sea level on marine settlements.

Research leader, Dr Leonie Robinson, commented: “Although the key facts about barnacle colonisation are well known, it is rare that such a unique opportunity arises to assess all facts together in such a well designed ecological experiment.

“Creatures like barnacles and mussels prefer habitats that are exposed to the elements but choose optimal positions that allow them to feed in the water column without getting battered by waves and currents. The Gormley statues not only provide a perfect anchor point but sheltered parts of the figures such as the inner thigh protect them from extreme harsh conditions.

“This particular breed is a cross-fertilising hermaphrodite which means that once it has settled, the barnacle can produce multiple broods of larvae – increasing its local population size several times in a year.”

Funded by the British Ecological Society (BES), the team are also analysing DNA taken from the settlement to find out where the barnacles have travelled from in addition to assessing the factors which led to choosing where on the statues they fixed themselves.

The study will end in November, when the Gormley statues will be uprooted and moved to a new home in New York. Before transit they will be cleaned of all trace of the marine life they have housed on Merseyside – just as they were cleaned when they arrived in Crosby from their previous ‘homes’ across Europe.

Dr Robinson added: “We will be sorry to see the statues go, but in a relatively short time we have been able to test some key ecological theories about the colonisations of communities on intertidal shores. We hope to organise collaboration with marine scientists in New York to follow up our research findings in the UK.”

Joanna Robotham | alfa
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