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Journal Of Experimental Biology


We apply new perspectives on how organisms burrow by examining the association of in situ variation in sediment mechanical properties with burrowing ability and species distribution of two sympatric lugworms, Abarenicola pacifica and Abarenicola claparedi. We quantified the sediment's resistance to penetration and its grain size distribution at sites inhabited by each species. Abarenicola pacifica individuals were found in significantly harder to penetrate, more heterogeneous sediments. We compared worm burrowing ability using reciprocal transplant experiments. Worms from firmer sediments, A. pacifica, were able to make successful steep burrows in sediments characteristic of either species. In contrast, A. claparedi individuals often failed to complete successful burrows in the firmer A. pacifica sediment. To examine how morphological differences could explain these patterns, we compared body wall musculature and measured how well individuals support their own bodies when draped over a cantilever. Lugworms from the firmer sediment had thicker body wall musculature and held their bodies more rigidly than did worms from softer sediments. Additionally, we observed subtle differences in the papillae on the proboscises' surfaces, which could affect worm–sediment interactions, but we found no differences in the chaetae of the two species. Abarenicola claparedi produced more mucus, which could be important in shoring up burrow walls in their shifting, sandy habitat. This study presents the first example of using field-based experiments to determine how sediment mechanical properties and worm burrowing ability could act to determine organismal distribution. Our findings have broader ecological implications because of the role of lugworms as ecosystem engineers.


functional morphology, Polychaetes, Abarenicola, biomechanics, Ecosystem engineer, Sediment mechanics


This work is freely available courtesy of the Company of Biologists.