By Charlotte Owen
A walk along the strandline always provides potential for exciting marine discoveries, and the recent storms have thrown all manner of flotsam and jetsam onto the shore. Some of this storm-cast debris is home to fascinating wildlife that would otherwise be hidden beneath the waves, so that unseen creatures are now completely unmissable.
Some of the most bizarre can be seen in their thousands still clinging to their driftwood raft, now becalmed in a sea of pebbles. From a distance, their beached vessel resembles a cluster of white shells tangled in a mass of dark seaweed but a closer look reveals their true, alien form. Each fleshy stalk belongs to a single, shelled passenger, safely housed within the chalky white plates at its tip and anchored firmly to the barely visible wood beneath. These creatures can cling to any suitable surface and have even been found encrusting a section of washed-up spacecraft, but despite their otherworldly appearance they do belong on this planet. They are goose barnacles, and they once puzzled people for hundreds of years.
The name dates back to at least the 12th century, when the word ‘barnacle’ was used for a species of goose. People had no idea about bird migration and since this goose was a winter visitor to the British Isles, people had never seen them nest or rear young and couldn’t work out where they came from. They concluded that they must develop underwater, and that pieces of barnacle-encrusted wood that sometimes washed ashore were in fact goose nurseries, with hundreds of tiny chicks attached to the timber by their beaks and enclosed in protective, white shells. Further evidence was provided by the tuft of delicate, fringed structures that could be seen just within each shell’s orange-lipped opening, which were thought to be downy feathers. In reality, these are the crustacean’s filter-feeding appendages but the legend of the barnacle goose persisted for hundreds of years. It’s still called the barnacle goose today, although we now know they breed in the Arctic, and these two unrelated species will forever share a slightly confusing name.