Shipworm points to global warming

Marine archaeology experts from the School of Conservation Sciences believe that Britain’s coast is under threat from a warm water shipworm.

Paola Palma and Dave Parham have detected a highly destructive species of shipworm in a rare wooden carving raised from a 17th century shipwreck off the Dorset coast. They believe the creature poses a major threat to the wreckage and to other timber structures all along Britain’s coast.

The carving, of a ‘merman’, is a major discovery retrieved by our students and staff from the Swash Channel near the entrance to Poole Harbour. However, the presence of the shipworm (‘Lyrodus pedicellatus’) in both the carving and in timbers of the wreck that remain underwater could prove to be a more important find.

Palma’s expertise has proved invaluable to English Heritage (EH), the national organisation that protects and promotes England’s historic locations and environment. Over the last two years, she’s been commissioned by EH to monitor the degradation of the Swash Channel wreck.

Palma is currently experimenting with a number of techniques to ensure its preservation. She said: “The presence of this type of shipworm in the area can be interpreted as an indication of global warming as typically this specimen lives in more temperate waters.

“If this species of shipworm continues to spread it poses a major threat to all submerged wooden structures around the British coast, including jetties and piers, as well as our underwater heritage.”

Palma previously recorded the same invasive creature on the historic wreck of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth. A similar problem is facing Venice, where a collaborative project is in development with a number of organisations – including BU – to evaluate the best options for replacing old and degraded wooden pilings in the historic Italian city.

Undergraduate Marine Archaeology students from BU have spent the last three summers mapping the Swash Channel wreck which emerged in 2004 following dredging work near the entrance to Poole Harbour.

The wreck, now licensed to the Poole Harbour Commission, is believed to date from the early 1600s, though its exact country of origin remains unknown.

Dave Parham says the wreck will benefit BU archaeology students: “The wreck provides our students with a unique opportunity to gain the professional experience they will need for their later careers, and the perfect springboard for a new Masters degree in Marine Archaeology that we’re planning to launch this autumn.”