Beautiful Brawny Barnacles

My daughter and I went for a walk on the beach after school yesterday. It was chilly, but calm, with a clear mid-winter sky and dolphins in the surf.

Washed up on the beach was a large tree stump crusted with barnacles whose colours mirrored the evening sky. The size and profusion of barnacles indicate the tree was lodged in the water for a long time before it was hurled onto our beach.

Barnacles are strange creatures. They’re crustaceans—kin to crabs, shrimp, and lobsters—but they don’t look anything like their relatives. Barnacles have given up the ability to move on their own (after a brief mobile larval stage), and instead settle down in places where the water moves around them—intertidal zones, the backs of whales and the bottoms of ships are popular barnacle real estate. Instead of having to wander in search of food, moving water carries lunch to the barnacles, and they filter it out of the water with feathery appendages called cirri.

Staying put in places where waves pound day in and day out isn’t easy. Barnacles produce a ‘glue’ that’s one of the strongest natural adhesives around. With a tensile strength of 35 N/mm2 (5000 psi), it rivals the best commercial epoxies. In a strange quirk of biology, the glue is produced by a gland at the base of the barnacle’s antennae, and so the animal is glued head-first to the substrate. Once glued to its home, the barnacle forms a ring of plates around its body to protect it (this is all that is left of the barnacles pictured here—the animals themselves have died).

There are costs to gluing oneself in place. Unlike other sessile animals like corals who release their eggs and sperm into the water for fertilisation, most barnacles rely on internal fertilisation. To reach their neighbours and manage this feat, the hermaphroditic (both male and female) animals have penises that can be 8 times the length of their bodies. Until recently, researchers thought this was the only way barnacles could reproduce, but in 2013, a study found that at least one species of barnacle (with a particularly short penis) can capture sperm from the water if it’s too far from its neighbours.

Barnacles are of human importance. They encrust ships, leading to increased drag and fuel costs. But their habit of attaching themselves to all sorts of debris can also be used forensically to track marine wildlife like whales and turtles, items from shipwrecks and airplane crashes, and marine debris. Additionally, barnacles are considered culinary delicacies in Spain, Portugal and Chile.

Beautiful and brawny, weird and wonderful, barnacles always make me smile.

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