Lepas testudinata goose barnacles

Goose barnacles on the beach

A (lovely, rain-bringing) onshore wind left great rafts of kelp all over Noordhoek beach one weekend in mid May. Finding anything of substance on this beach is unusual; it’s on an exposed piece of coastline and all but the most robust objects are dashed to pieces before they arrive on the sand. Seeing all the washed up kelp also reminded me that frequenting the beaches inside False Bay, that are daily cleaned of washed up kelp by the City of Cape Town, is liable to give one a skewed idea of just how much kelp naturally washes up on the sand.

Kelp stipe covered in goose barnacles
Kelp stipe covered in goose barnacles

This time, there was kelp, and lots of it. Several of the pieces of kelp had been colonised by goose barnacles. There are several species of goose barnacle that occur off South Africa’s coast, but these ones are Lepas testudinata. They are incredibly strange looking animals, and some of them were still alive and writhing slowly in the drying sun.

In parts of the world (I’m looking at you, Iberian peninsula), goose barnacles are an expensive delicacy. I have nothing to say about that.

Goose barnacles, with my paw for scale
Goose barnacles, with my paw for scale

Lepas testudinata larvae most often attach to free-floating pieces of kelp (Ecklonia maxima) and plastic debris, which is why you have probably never seen these mesmerisingly gross-looking creatures while on a dive. In the picture below, you can see that they’re attached to the bottom of a kelp holdfast, where it would ordinarily attach to the rock. This shows that they attached after the kelp broke off.

A kelp holdfast encrusted with goose barnacles
A kelp holdfast encrusted with goose barnacles

Each barnacle is possessed of a long fleshy peduncle, or stalk, which attaches to the kelp holdfast, stipe or fronds. On the end of the peduncle is a carapace (shell) made up of five separate pieces. The large part of the barnacle on the end of the peduncle (what you’d think of as its body), covered by the carapace, is called the capitulum. The apparatus that the barnacle uses for feeding – essentially six pairs of hairy legs – reside inside the carapace, along with the mouth. There’s some more detail and a nice diagram at this link. If you are familiar with other kinds of barnacles – the volcano-shaped ones that live on rocks, ships, whales and piers for example, then most of this (except the peduncle) should sound familiar to you.

Lepas testudinata goose barnacles
Lepas testudinata goose barnacles

Research done around South Africa’s coast (published here) by Otto Whitehead, Aiden Biccard and Charles Griffiths, identified the marked preference of Lepas testudinata for attaching to kelp. The researchers surveyed a selection of beaches around South Africa’s coast, from the west coast of the Cape Peninsula up to northern KwaZulu Natal, between June and October 2009. When they found goose barnacles washed up, they recorded the species of barnacle, the type of material they were attached to, the dimensions of the object, and its location. They also estimated the number of barnacles in each colony they found.

Lepas testudinata was the species they found most commonly, of the six species in total that they identified along the area of coast that was surveyed. (There’s a nice picture of the six species in their paper, which I used to identify the ones I found.)  This species of goose barnacle was found to prefer kelp, as mentioned, and also tended to colonise large objects compared to the other species (this could, of course, be because pieces of kelp are usually larger than items such as bits of plastic, glass, feathers, and shells that some other species prefer).

Kelp fronds with goose barnacles
Kelp fronds with goose barnacles

Lepas testudinata was the only species of goose barnacle that the researchers regularly found to form colonies comprising more than 1,000 individuals. It is also the only species of goose barnacle recorded by the survey that is only found in temperate (cooler) waters, which happens to be where kelp is found, too.

The researchers note that the goose barnacles of the Lepas testudinata species that they found on kelp seemed to have exceptionally long peduncles, some more than 25 centimetres long, and that this seems to differ from what has been previously known about them (which is that they have “short, spiny” peduncles). They suggest that perhaps the variety of Lepas testudinata that colonises kelp may even be a separate species from the one previously described (more research obviously required to ascertain this). You can see from my photographs that the peduncles of the washed up Noordhoek beach goose barnacle colonies are also quite long, some easily 20 centimetres in length.

Clusters of goose barnacles on a kelp stipe
Clusters of goose barnacles on a kelp stipe

They also found that the increasing prevalence of long-lasting and buoyant plastic marine debris and other anthropogenic objects around our coastline, which some species of goose barnacles preferentially attach to, gives these weird little creatures increased opportunities to form colonies, and to spread to new places. This is one of those interesting phenomena to keep in mind, as humans inexorably alter the environment. Some creatures will benefit in strange ways from warming oceans, and others will find new homes in the garbage we leave lying around.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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