Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Everything You Wanted to Know About Barnacles, But Were Afraid to Ask (or, How I Came to be a Marine Scientist)

I'm often asked why I became a marine scientist. I come from upstate New York--farm country. We have lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers. No ocean. While there's not really a single answer, I could give the standard, boiler-plate: Jacques Cousteau, family vacations at the shore, my love of the outdoors, being a swimmer. But the truth is it was barnacles that really captured my interest.

True confessions, I spent much more of my college career socializing (a euphemism for drinking) than studying. There are many lectures, indeed, many semesters that are a bit hazy in my mind, not due to the 30-intervening years, but due to the hangover I had during those classes. But, I remember barnacles from zoology class. This was while I was still at SUNY Binghamton, still a vague "maybe-sort of something in biology" major who hadn't decided what to do with my life.

I was probably half-dozing, sleeping off a hangover, or planning that night's activities, when the professor said something that caught my attention and has stuck with me to this day.

A barnacle's penis can reach up to ten-times its body length.

The barnacle penis is a modified cirrus
Wait. It gets better.
The barnacle penis has transverse and longitudinal muscles.

That means it can extend, contract, and move left, right, around in circles, any old way!

I'll admit, that is a really strange thing to focus on, but I did. I paid attention to the rest of that lecture. More surprising, I went home and read the chapter on arthropods, and particularly, crustaceans.

What I learned stayed with me. Not only are barnacles the John Holmes of the invertebrate world...hell, of the WHOLE animal kingdom, but they're pretty darn interesting for little buggers that stay latched on to one place for their whole lives.

Barnacles are hermaphroditic--they're he/shes with both male and female parts. They can self-fertilize, but usually don't. With a penis that's 10-times your body length, you can reach out and touch your nearest (or not so near) neighbor pretty easily, and your neighbor can reciprocate.

After fertilization, the eggs develop inside the adult's shell and, when ready, are released into the water. Ready means the eggs have developed into nauplii larvae (barnacle infancy), a traveling-with-the-currents, feeding, growing stage. The nauplius has a simple eye spot, so can detect light and shadows, antennae to sense the environment, and swims (or more appropriately, steers, since the currents would overpower any swimming they did) using setae (hair-like projections) as oars. The barnacle spends about 6 months as a nauplius, molting to grow, as do all arthropods. At the last molt before adulthood, it will undergo metamorphosis into a cyprid larva (adolescence).

The cyprid stage is really messed up, in a fascinating way. Cyprid larvae don't eat. At all. And barnacles can spend anywhere from days to 6 or 7 weeks in this stage.

The cyprid larvae's job is to find a place to settle down. This isn't a decision to be made lightly. Barnacles are sessile: once they settle down, it's forever.
Cyprid larva
The perfect forever home for a barnacles is on a hard surface; one with some pits and grooves to snuggle into so it can't be easily wiped off. Somewhere with room to grow, but with some neighbors, too (to take advantage of that long, dexterous penis); some of its own kind to associate with...just not too close or crowded.  And food should be readily available. 
Food comes from the same place as enemies or predators, from the water.  Live high enough above the water line and the aquatic predators can't reach you, but too high and neither can the food. Then there's a whole other set of terretrial predators that can get you. And the sunlight up high can be pretty harsh, beating down on you during the day when the tide is out. The cyprid larvae has to balance all of these considerations when seeking its permanent home.

Once it's found a suitable location, the cyprid settles down. It has a short period when it can crawl around, use its antennae to make sure it this is where it wants to spend the rest of its life, and the do the deed.

The larva places its head down on the spot it selected and uses an adhesive gland located near its antennae to release a cementing substance. The decision is now final and irrevocable. The cyprid larva is permanently glued to this spot. Now, the barnacle undergoes one last metamorphosis into adulthood.

The newly cemented-in-place barnacle undergoes many changes so it can be more efficient in its sedentary adult life. It secretes calcareous plates around its soft body for protection from predators, desiccation, and wave action. The eyespot that detected light/dark serves no purpose. Maintaining a photoreceptor is a waste of energy, so adult barnacles lose their “eye.”

Adult acorn barnacle
The larval swimming appendages (setae) also become unnecessary. The swim appendages turn into "cirri" or feeding legs.  These "new-" (or modified old-) appendages provide the scientific name given to barnacles‑‑Cirripedia. In Latin, that means hairy feet.  Their hairy feet wave in the water above their shell, catching small organisms. So, really, the barnacle spends its whole adult life doing a handstand and kicking food into its mouth.

As in most arthropods, the appendages, or cirri, become highly specialized. Some of the cirri are used for feeding, some are for grasping, and then there's that one special one that captured my interest: the reproductive cirri, aka, the penis. I've since found that my professor's claim of "10 times it's body length" may have been a bit of an exaggeration. It's more typically "only" seven times the animal's length. Still no slouch in the endowment department (see photo above). 

Once a barnacle’s metamorphosis to adulthood is complete, he/she can extend this impressive appendage in a neighborly‑barnacle sort of way to any old neighbor at all (within about a 7-barnacle-length circumference) and get on with important business:  passing on its genetic material to a new generation. And while this is going on with any given barnacle, chances are that one of its neighbors is doing the same thing back to it, creating a cirri‑connected, hermaphroditic, totally sessile, intertidal mass‑orgy.

Fascinating, isn't it? There are thousands more stories of life in the sea, all equally interesting.

Is it any wonder why I became a marine scientist?


Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Sunshine Blogger Award

Cindy Dwyer, at A Reason to Write, nominated Waterblogged for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Thanks, Cindy! A fellow IWW member and author, Cindy and I are at a similar position with our current manuscripts: the dreaded query stage! If you read her blog, you'll see what a talented and funny writer she is. I'm certain her hysterical memoir of growing up in a "mixed" (Irish and Italian) family, My Roots are Showing, will find an agent soon.

On to the award...

Like many of the blogging awards circulating, this is a "chain award" where, when you're nominated, you answer some questions and pass the award on to other bloggers (the award calls for 10, but I'm not much for details, so I'll leave it at "other bloggers"). Some brilliant blogger (Cindy Brown at Everyday Underwear) came up with an option to accept the "Do Not Do a Damn Thing, I just like your blog"  award, giving all of us a way to let our favorite bloggers know we're fans without making them feel obligated to continue the chain. That option is available for my nominees (listed below, after I answer the award's 8 questions).

1. What is your favorite Christmas/festive movie?
Easy! Christmas Story. Ralphie's adventures take me back to my own childhood, where I too lived more in my imagination than in the real world. From the BB gun to the tongue-on-the-flagpole, I know that childhood. I lived it. I can (and do) watch that movie repeatedly from Thanksgiving day (a tradition in our house) through Christmas.

2. What is your favorite flower?
Frangipani, aka Plumeria. I love the flower and the tree both, and perhaps even more, I love the caterpillar that eats the toxic leaves: the frangipani worm
(Frangipani. Photo from Wikipedia)

3. What is your favorite non-alcoholic beverage?
I'm afraid I don't understand the question. Non-alcoholic beverage? I suppose the tonic that goes into my G&T, although by itself, it's pretty nasty stuff.

4. What is your passion?
Swimming! If you have any doubts, scroll down a bit to read my post on "Swimmers' Bliss"--far superior to a mere runners' high.

5. What is your favorite time of year?
Summer time, summer time, sum-sum-summer time! Or, at least when I'm anywhere above about 25 degrees N latitude. Below that, in the Caribbean, winter, with the balmy 80 degree days and chilly 70 degree nights.

6. What is your favorite time of day?
Afternoon. I'm neither a morning person nor a night person. I ease into my day, peak in the middle, then fade off to bed at a fairly early hour. When other people are having their post-lunch crash, I'm wired and ready to go! Before and after that, I wake up early (5:30 a.m., thanks to the cat) and while I don't mind that, I don't want to do anything but drink coffee, check email, and catch up on the news until about 8. Bedtime is about 9:30, but then I read for 30-60 minutes, so usually about 10 p.m.

7. What is your favorite physical activity?
Swimming. Again, I'll refer you to my post on Swimmers' Bliss!

8. What is your favorite vacation?
Anywhere and everywhere. I love to travel, meet new people, and explore new places. Everywhere and everyone has a story and I love learning those. While I prefer island life and warmer climes for living, I'm perfectly happy to travel to anywhere.

And now the fun part. I get to nominate some other bloggers who have brought sunshine into my life. And they are:

1. Cheese Will Set You Free, the diary of Chester Crump.

2. Margaret and Helen

3. Kathryn Magendie, Writing from My Mountain Cove

4.  Writing on Board, by Normandie Ward Fischer

As I mentioned earlier, I’m giving these bloggers the option of accepting either the Sunshine Blogger Award or The Don’t Do A Damn Thing Award…I Just Like Your Blog, a brainchild of Cindy Brown over at Everyday Underwear. If you accept the Sunshine Award, answer the questions and pass it along to (ten/some) other brilliant bloggers. If you’d prefer The Don’t Do A Damn Thing Award, well I think you can figure it out from there.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Reading

I have the best intentions of posting weekly on this blog, but sometimes the rest of life interferes with those plans. The past 10 days have been full of those. I'd really wanted to have blow-by-blow coverage of Olympic swimming, with Phelps's incredible 20-medals' performance. But it took him a while to find his groove. I had mixed feelings about Lochte beating him (and so decisively) in the 400 IM. Hurray Ryan! But how sad for Michael. Were we going to watch a total implosion over the next 10 days? How could that be? That worried and demotivated me. I wasn't sure what to write. So I didn't write anything. 

Instead, watching the amazing Olympic swimmers inspired me to go back and read some of my favorite swimming books of all time. They motivate and excite me, keep me going back to the pool, not for any competitive glory, but because of a renewed sense of wonder and awe at the sport and swimmers and the physics of bodies in the water.

Dara Torres's Age is Just a Number ( is a great read for anyone, but particularly for those of us of a certain age, wondering what's left. I love her opening: I've been old before. I was old when I was 27 and I got divorced. I was old when I was 35 and couldn't get pregnant. I was really old when I was 39 and my father died.  I know those feelings. I've expressed the same thoughts myself. I'm sure I was never older than I was at 27. (Those of you who know me know I'm certainly far less mature now than I was then!) She goes on: But when I was 41 and woke up in a dorm in  the Olympic Village in Beijing, I didn't feel old.

Her journey and her determination inspire and motivate, let us see that we're never too old to pursue a dream. Age gives us one benefit over youth. Perspective. What's the worst thing that could happen? We might fail. With perspective, we see that's not so horrible. The beauty is in the journey, the attempt, not in the destination.

Amanda Beard's In the Water They Can't See You Cry" (  is the heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting journey she went through during her years of athletic fame. Hers isn't an uncommon story among world class female athletes. Despite being an incredibly beautiful and talented woman, she felt unworthy, lashed out with self-destructive behaviors. She had problems with bulimia--very common in athletes, and particularly swimmers and divers. Shame on coaches, parents, and spectators feeling the need to comment on these girls' and womens' bodies. Let anyone of them stand on a pool deck in a Speedo in front of thousands of people and see how they stack up. Then get them in the pool and REALLY see what being in shape means! Beard's book is a must read for parents of female swimmers. The pressures she faced are common in the sport. In her case, no one noticed her battle with depression for years. Luckily, someone (her future husband) finally did and she got help and overcame her problem. Knowing all she's gone through makes her that much more of a star in my book.
Amanda Beard (photo from Brooks International)

If you're an Amanda Beard fan, you'll love her blog, Swim Like a Mom too. 

My all time favorite swimming book is Gold in the Water by P.H. Mullen ( ). This is a fantastic read for parents and swimmers both. Mullen chronicles the journey of a group of swimmers at the Santa Clara Swim Club trying to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Australia. He captures the emotional and physical pressures of that journey, and the highs and lows of the athletes as they reach for new heights. If the Olympics got you pumped and ready to up your swim workouts, read this. It'll keep that motivation alive!

In the end, Michael Phelps didn't let us down. He managed to get his head into the games and have some outstanding performances. He, Lochte, Missy Franklin, and all the USA swimmers were outstanding. With a total of 30 medals (16 gold, 8 silver, and 6 bronze) we showed once again that swimming is our true power sport, the one we always and consistently dominate.

I stand in awe of the greatness our swimmers have achieved, and the greatness they inspire. For more inspiration, read these three books. They'll  make you want to dive right in and start swimming laps!