The Letter B is for Barnacle

Each day the team gets a little bit closer to the end of the 2010 Australia field season. With eighty-two days of research down and only eight to go you think we’d have it all figured out by now, yet each day we still wake up to a new sense of adventure and opportunity. At this point in the season moms and calves have moved into the area and feeding behaviors have come to a near standstill. Minor feeding attempts can be observed only on certain occasions, but for the most part when we roll out of bed we know what social groups we’ll be observing that day (mostly mom and calves). What we can’t tell, however, is just how quirky, bizarre, and outside the norm some of the wildlife we encounter will be.

Barnacles are a crustacean not considered to be parasitic to whales, yet are not considered to be beneficial either. Over the past few weeks the research team has been able to witness and document some pretty extreme barnacle situations, however one subadult in particular today took the trophy for “most extreme barnacle infestation” hands down. Little is known about acorns, particularly the acorn species found on Humpback whales, but one thing that seems to be for sure is that they attach and grow in the cooler nutrient rich waters spanning the higher latitudes.

Free floating larvae attach to the whale’s skin in colder water, building a cone shaped shell around its own body for protection, yet likely adding some form of drag (albeit minor) to the whales. Feeding on free floating material within the water column the barnacle seems to have a pretty good setup on its humpback host, however just how much of a “pest” the barnacle is to a humpback is still a mystery. Although the barnacles on this humpback are young and likely not all to survive through to their adult form, one has to wonder just how uncomfortable, if even noticeable, this is for this young subadult animal. One can only hope we’ll see this animal again next year, but perhaps (for its own sake) not carrying quite as large of a load.

Annie Macie