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Barnacles track whale migration

Chemical composition of hitchhikers’ shells might reveal ancient baleen travel routes

12:01pm, September 27, 2016
Baleen whale

BARNACLE BIOGRAPHY  The barnacles that latch on to baleen whales, such as this humpback, may offer a record of their hosts’ movements, even millions of years later, new research suggests.

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DENVER — Barnacles can tell a whale of a tale. Chemical clues inside barnacles that hitched rides on baleen whales millions of years ago could divulge ancient whale migration routes, new research suggests.

Modern baleen whales migrate thousands of kilometers annually between breeding and feeding grounds, but almost nothing is known about how these epic journeys have changed over time. Scientists can glean where an aquatic animal has lived based on its teeth. The mix of oxygen isotopes embedded inside newly formed tooth material depends on the region and local temperature, with more oxygen-18 used near the poles than near the equator. That oxygen provides a timeline of the animal’s travels. Baleen whales don’t have teeth, though. So paleobiologists Larry Taylor and Seth Finnegan, both of the University of California, Berkeley, looked at something else growing on whales: barnacles. Like teeth, barnacle shells take in oxygen as they grow.

Patterns of oxygen isotopes in layers of barnacle shells collected from modern beached whales matched known whale migration routes, Taylor said September 25 at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting. Roughly 2-million-year-old barnacle fossils have analogous oxygen isotope changes, preliminary results suggest. Converting those changes into migration maps, however, will require reconstructing how oxygen isotopes were distributed long ago, Taylor said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated September 29, 2016, to correct the age of the barnacle fossils.


L.D. Taylor. Isotopic analysis of coronulid barnacle shells to reconstruct mysticete whale migration. Geological Society of America annual meeting, Denver, September 25, 2016.

Further Reading

H. Thompson. New fossil suggests echolocation evolved early in whales. Science News Online, August 5, 2016.

A. Yeager. Rise of East African Plateau dated by whale fossil. Science News Online, March 16, 2015.

S. Milius. Finally, the truth about barnacle sex is revealed. Science News. Vol. 183, February 23, 2013, p. 15.

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