Author Jess Price
The other day I received a phone call from a man who had found something unusual on the beach at Saltdean. He started to describe it to me over the phone and I was immediately intrigued…
It was a large piece of wood he said, covered in long, fleshy dark purple tentacles with bluish grey heads. These heads looked like shells and had smaller tentacles coming out of them. I must admit I was a little baffled, but then he told me he had taken some photographs and could email them over to me.
You’d be easily forgiven for thinking that this is a creature from out of space, but it’s actually a piece of drift wood covered in hundreds of goose barnacles. This particular species of barnacle, called Lepas anatifera, is usually found in quite deep water but occasionally they wash up on shore.
Each barnacle is made up of two distinct parts - the capitulum is the hard bluish-white shell that holds the main body of the barnacle whilst the peduncle is the long flexible stalk that attaches it to floating objects. The smaller tentacles that can be seen poking from the capitulum are feeding appendages that filter out plankton and detritus from the surrounding water. Unfortunately these particular barnacles will not survive, but they will provide a tasty meal for many animals.
Goose barnacles do somewhat resemble the head and neck of a goose, however in the Middle Ages people went one step further and actually believed that goose barnacles were geese – barnacle geese to be exact. Back then people didn’t understand the concept of migration. They knew that barnacle geese could be seen in the UK during winter, but they never saw the geese nest. This isn’t surprising considering they breed in the Arctic.
People sometimes came across goose barnacles wash up on the beach and decided that the most logical explanation was that the geese sprouted out from the barnacles. Of course we now know that this is not true, but back then people made the most of the misconception – because barnacle geese came out of the sea, they were considered fish so could be eaten on a Friday!
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