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Revealed, the great barrier reef of Skye: 100million dazzling orange 'flame shells' carpet seabedAstonishing natural reef found near Isles of Skye
The scallop-like species have glowing orange tentaclesThe living reef supports hundreds of other species
11:49 GMT, 27 December 2012
It is a newly discovered natural wonder, a living natural reef made up of 100million brightly coloured shellfish carpeting the seabed.
But while the spectacular colony of flame shells may look like something from tropical waters, it has actually been found off Scotland’s coast.
A survey of Loch Alsh, a sea inlet between Skye and the mainland, uncovered what scientists believe could be the world’s biggest single population of the creatures.
Loch and awe: The flame shells live in giant colonies
The flame shells, or Limaria hians, form a large shellfish reef on the west coast of Scotland, which could be the biggest find of its kind in the world
THE FLAME SHELL
Flame shells build 'nests' by binding gravel and shells together with thin wiry threads.
Although each measures around 4cm long, when they group together in large numbers, the sea bed is covered by a felt-like organic reef of material several centimetres thick.
Flame shell beds are found at only eight sites in Scottish waters.
The 1.5inch long, scallop-like species has numerous neon orange tentacles that emerge between its two shells.
Colonies create ‘nests’ by binding gravel and shells together with thin threads.
According to a survey commissioned by Marine Scotland, the Loch Alsh colony covers 75 hectares (185 acres) of seabed.
This has created a living reef that supports hundreds of other species.
Flame shells are considered scarce and beds are found in only eight sites in Scottish waters.
As part of the work to identify new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Marine Scotland has co-ordinated a programme of eight surveys during 2012, including Loch Alsh, covering more than 640 square miles of sea.
The Loch Alsh survey was carried out by Heriot Watt University on behalf of Marine Scotland.
Dr Dan Harries, of Heriot Watt, said: ‘Too often, when we go out to check earlier records of a particular species or habitat, we find them damaged, struggling or even gone.
The incredible find was made in Loch Alsh in the Isles of Skye in Scotland
‘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.’
Ben James, of Scottish Natural Heritage, said: ‘Whilst we had some records of flame shells in Loch Alsh, we had no idea how big the bed was. We needed more certainty before recommending them as a protected feature of this MPA proposal.
‘It’s great to have this new information and it’s yet another example of the fantastic diversity of Scotland’s marine environment.’
Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: ‘The seas around Scotland are a hotbed of biodiversity and the clean and cold waters support many fascinating and beautiful species.
Marine experts are 'delighted' at the find, in a sea inlet off the Isles of Skye
‘With Scottish waters covering an area around five times bigger than our landmass, it’s a huge challenge to try to understand more about our diverse and precious sea life.
The flame shell must be considered among the most remarkable species in our waters, with a dazzling array of orange tentacles.’
Mr Lochhead added: ‘Many would place such an exotic species in far-flung tropical reefs, not realising they dwell under the waves just off the coast of Skye.
‘This important discovery may be the largest grouping of flame shells anywhere in the world.
‘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.’