When the BBC’s Autumnwatch wanted to analyse the calorific value of tiny life forms in Morcambe Bay mud, it turned to Lancaster University researchers for help.

Presenter Martin Hughes-Games claimed that there are fourteen chocolate bars worth of calories in a cubic metre of the mudflats that cover Morcambe Bay, so his fellow presenter Michaela Strachan challenged him to prove it.

“I aided in collecting and identifying the invertebrates present,” said entomologist Dr Juliane Graham, a research associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre, who appeared on the Autumnwatch programme which was broadcast from the Leighton Moss bird reserve a few miles north of Lancaster.

PhD student Stephanie Bryan was also asked to help because of her expertise in nematodes, a form of microscopic roundworms, and diatoms, tiny single celled plants a fraction of a millimetre long.

Revealing what’s in the mud

“They wanted to be able to extract nematodes and other microscopic organisms from the mud,” said Stephanie, from the Centre for Global Eco Innovation who is working with local company Arcis Biotechnology Ltd on the environmental effects of a proposed new chemical to control parasitic nematodes.

Dr Jackie Parry from Lancaster University’s division of Biomedical and Life Sciences, took a core sample of the mud for Stephanie to analyse.  

“After a morning being filmed sieving the mud at Leighton Moss I was able to bring the sample back to the Lancaster Environment Centre so that we could view both the diatoms and nematodes extracted,” Stephanie explained.

The process showed that a cubic metre of mud contained life forms equivalent to only a fifth of the calories in a single chocolate bar, not the 14 bars Martin predicted.

Small organisms with a big role

The presenters, however, were still fascinated by the results. Michaela Strachan was particularly taken by diatoms, the tiny plant life found in the top millimetre or so of the mud which play a vital role in absorbing carbon.

“I find it absolutely fascinating. If you took a metre square of that mud it would absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as a metre square of tropical forest,” she said.

Stephanie was delighted “that we managed to get the Autumnwatch talking about these microscopic but very important organisms that are often ignored.”

Juliane thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It was a very intense few hours of filming with mud flying in all directions. It was great fun though, and I’m glad we were able to find quite a selection of invertebrates even if it didn’t come close to the number that Martin hoped to find.”