Thursday, 8 October 2020


We can trace the lineage of barnacles back to the Middle Cambrian. That's half a billion years of data to sift through. But if you divide that timeline in half yet again, we begin to understand barnacles and their relationship to other sea-dwelling creatures — and a lens that shows us ancient migration patterns.

One of the most interesting aha moments in palaeontology came from the study of 270,000 million-year-old barnacles. These sticky wee crustaceans have enabled us to trace the course of ancient whale migration. 

University of California Berkeley doctoral student Larry Taylor published some clever findings on how fossil barnacles hitched a ride on the backs of humpback and gray whales millions of years ago and used this data to reconstruct the migrations of ancient whale populations.

The barnacles not only record details about the whales’ yearly travels but also retain this information after they become fossilized. By following this barnacle trail, Taylor et al. were able to reconstruct migration routes of whales from millions of years in the past.

Today, Humpback whales come from both the Southern Hemisphere (July to October with over 2,000 whales) and the Northern Hemisphere (December to March about 450 whales along with Central America) to Panama (and Costa Rica). They undertake annual migrations from polar summer feeding grounds to winter calving and nursery grounds in subtropical and tropical coastal waters.

One surprise find is that the coast of Panama has been a meeting ground for humpback whales going back at least 270,000 years.

To see how the barnacles have travelled through the migration routes of ancient whales, the team used oxygen isotope ratios in barnacle shells and measured how they changed over time with ocean conditions. Did the whale migrate to warmer breeding grounds or colder feeding grounds? Barnacles retain this information even after they fall off the whale, sink to the ocean bottom, and become fossils. As a result, the travels of fossilized barnacles can serve as a proxy for the journeys of whales in the distant past.

Barnacles can play an important role in estimating paleo-water depths. The degree of disarticulation of fossils suggests the distance they have been transported, and since many species have narrow ranges of water depths, it can be assumed that the animals lived in shallow water and broke up as they were washed down-slope. The completeness of fossils, and nature of the damage, can thus be used to constrain the tectonic history of regions.