The Edge of the Sea
Human-Limpet Encounters at the Coast
In search of Patella pellucida, the tiny Blue Rayed Limpet with Louise, low tide at South Milton Sands in Devon.
An introduction to Marine Ecology
Dr Louise Firth, an Associate Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Plymouth has been a huge source of inspiration for this project. We first met on Twitter, sharing our enthusiasm for limpets and then, in November 2021 we got together for an in-person limpety weekend.
Louise is a mine of information on limpet ecology and told me so much... that limpets grow their own algae gardens, how limpets in the south of Britain spawn in the autumn when sea temperatures drop to 11 degrees and about epibiont assemblages, where other life forms live on top of limpet shell 'islands' without harming them.
This limpet is almost indistinguishable beneath its covering of Sea Lettuce and and other algae.
Louise has also researched and written about limpets and their significance in human history.
Patella depressa, 2021
During the weekend I was introduced to Dr Axelle Amstutz. Axelle invited me and Louise into her home where we drank tea and chatted about our mutual interest in limpets. Axelle explained that our favourite molluscs featured in four 'natural laboratory' sites in the south of England as part of her doctoral research. The fascinating study showed the impact that increasing temperature associated with anthropogenic climate change can have on limpets.
Axelle gifted The Limpetarium with a selection of beautiful Patella depressa (Black-footed limpet) shells that she had collected during her study. This article summarises Axelle's research.
Drug Soup Ocean
Drug Soup Ocean
A Cabinet of Warning and Remedy
Wooden display cabinet, glass medicine bottles and text.
This work was inspired by the research of Alex T. Ford (Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth, UK) and Peter P. Fong (Department of Biology, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, USA) published in 2015 and 2018. Even though this research does not specifically refer to limpets, email correspondence with Peter Fong in 2021 confirmed that they are affected by antidepressants.
The text in the cabinet reads:
Antidepressant medication may cause limpets to lose their grip. This is due to wastewater discharges, which are polluted with SSRI's entering aquatic systems, affecting the limpets neurotransmitters.
Antidepressants can cause havoc in the natural world after they pass out of the body of the person taking them in the form of urine and faeces and enter the water supply.
The chemicals cause the limpets to lose their ability to cling to rocks. This is damaging to limpets who are essential to maintaining the diversity of the seashore.
People in Britain use more antidepressants than almost every other country in the Western world.
Antidepressant medicines are found everywhere, in sewage, surface water, ground water, drinking water, soil and accumulating in wildlife tissues.
This isn't about a one-off pollutant entering the limpets habitat, they are bathed in drugs their entire lifecycle.
Humble as they seem, limpets are an essential element of the rocky shore ecosystem. By creating a balance between seaweed cover and bare rock, they increase biodiversity of the seashore.
Scientists believe that aquatic organisms can be affected by as little as one nanogram of antidepressant drug per litre, the equivalent of a few drops of water in an olympic-size swimming pool.
Limpets are considered to be 'keystone' species on North Atlantic rocky shores. This means they help define the entire ecosystem, playing a critical role in maintaining rocky shore communities.
Limpets feed by scraping films of algae off rocks using their radula; a toothed, ribbon-like tongue. By clearing some areas of seaweed growth they enable other animals to settle and increase the diversity of the seashore.
Based on ecotoxicological data, antidepressants have been ranked highly amongst those pharmaceuticals with a potential risk to the aquatic environment.
But it doesn't have to be like this:
Upgrade the UK's waste water treatment plants to comply with EU regulations designed to bring synthetic oestrogens to an acceptable level. Synthetic oestrogens end up in the water from people taking the contraceptive pill, but the measure could also help with the problem of antidepressants.
Patients should return their waste medication to the pharmacy instead of flushing them down the toilet or throwing them into the bin where, later, they end up in landfill and leech into ground water.
Doctors need to take into account the problems and persistence of antidepressant drugs in the environment when prescribing them to someone.
The pharmaceutical industry should design drugs that break down safely in the environment.
Even one of these steps towards addressing the environmental problem would help.
Limpet Ting 2 - Houses of Wind, Wave and Voice
A Limpet Ting is an assembly of people who have an interest in limpets and where limpet knowledge is exchanged. It was inspired by 'Things', from the Old Norse þing which were the early assemblies found throughout Northern Europe.
Warebeth Beach, Stromness, Orkney, January 16th 2022
Reconnecting Humans with the Non-Human World
After reading Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Pantheon, 2010), and The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (Vintage, 1997) by David Abram I have begun to wonder if it might be possible, through an active, participatory relationship with limpets to provide some kind of remedy for the disconnect we have with the non-human world. How can I, with others explore the possibility of developing a more convivial, reciprocal and respectful relationship between humans, limpets and the wider landscape? Might this be possible through sensory, bodily experience and the use of language?
In January 2022 I invited students from the Contemporary Art and Archaeology MA Winter School, organised by Dr Antonia Thomas to join me at a Limpet Ting designed to explore these questions. Five of us met up in Stromness, Orkney on January 16th, a cold, windy but invigorating day! We made our way along the coastal path, following the shoreline of Hoy Sound for around 40 minutes until we reached Warebeth Beach. The beach is named after the large amount of seaweed or "ware" that can be found there. In the 18th and 19th centuries seaweed was harvested for use as fertiliser and kelp making (more of this later).
I provided everyone with guidance, explaining how we might explore and develop our relationship with limpets and the wider landscape using our senses and proprioception (the position, location and movement of our bodies). We spent time feeling, hearing, seeing, stooping and crouching, sheltering from the wind alongside a low slab of rock. We then tried creating words and phrases that captured these directly experienced encounters and bodily sensations using writing materials contained within my repurposed ink storage box, The Portable Limpetarium 4.
We scribbled , doodled and sketched, honing our 'limpet language' and once each of us had settled on the words and phrases that worked best we wrote them on small white cards which were used, together with wire clips and limpet shells to make a temporary installation on the beach.
Later participants said:
"I really enjoyed spending the time on the beach with you all, discussing all types of things whilst having the limpet focus... I see limpet shells everywhere now..."
"It was a really lovely experience to feel the wind and see the actual habitat... before I took part in the workshop I didn't even know of the existence of limpets so thank you for introducing me to he world of limpets! Limpets are called 'umbrella shellfish' in Japanese"
"Before the workshop all I knew of limpets was what I had come across in encyclopaedias, on TV or in books such as the famous Observer book series. Limpets are a fascinating way to slow down time, closer to geological time I guess... they remind me of the batteries you find in wrist watches, those little round ones. Vibrant, pulsating full stops or colons of the ocean"
Thank you to Matt Webb, Gillian Cooper, Kyoto Tachibana and Deborah Ilett for braving the bitter wind and creating some wonderfully sensual limpet vocabulary. Thanks also to Aileen Ogilvie for the beautiful voice recording.
Houses of Wind, Wave and Voice is a video that conveys a little of our experience.
by Helen Garbett, Bill Laybourne and Aileen Ogilvie, 2022
Watercolour on paper
"Look. See. Observe. Learn. Wonder. Question. Conclude."
From Margaret Atwood's introduction to the 2021 edition of The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson