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Barnacles Leak Sperm Into Ocean, Upending Mating Theory

Barnacles, already famous for having the longest penises in the animal kingdom (relative to size), have another reproductive quirk.

The Pacific gooseneck barnacle is the first species of ocean-dwelling arthropods—the group that includes crustaceans, insects, and spiders—known to spermcast, according to a new study. (Watch a video of Pacific gooseneck barnacles feeding.)

Just as it sounds, spermcasting occurs when a male barnacle sends out his sperm into the water, and females pick it up and fertilize their eggs. Other species such as sponges, jellyfish, and sea anenomes are known to spermcast.

Pacific gooseneck barnacles release sticky sperm masses. Photograph courtesy A. Richard Palmer

That may sound bizarre, but barnacles’ sex lives are already stranger than fiction.

Unlike most free-living arthropods, barnacles glue themselves to hard surfaces, such as rocks. Since they can’t move, the shallow-water creatures evolved superlong penises—which can also sometimes change shape and size—in order to fertilize their neighbors.

As the study authors describe it, “a functional male searches for partners by random penis movements and then deposits sperm into the partner’s mantle cavity” in a process called pseudo-copulation.

But if that’s literally a bit of a stretch, the animals have another option: self-fertilization. (Most barnacles are hermaphrodites, though they tend to lean toward one gender.)

Pacific Gooseneck Barnacles a “Puzzle”

Not so for the Pacific gooseneck barnacle, which is bit of a “technical puzzle”—the species has never been observed self-fertilizing, said study co-author Richard Palmer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Yet somehow, isolated gooseneck barnacles can still reproduce even if they’re anchored far from another barnacle—what’s scientifically called the “penis range.”

Barnacles anchor themselves to a fixed spot, such as a rock. Photograph courtesy A. Richard Palmer

Palmer, who has observed Pacific gooseneck barnacles “leaking” sperm, suspected the isolated animals were getting fertilized from sperm in the water.

To investigate this mystery, a team led by Marjan Barazandeh, also of the University of Alberta, collected several Pacific gooseneck barnacles from Barkley Sound, British Columbia, in 2009 and 2010.

Barazandeh and her team then analyzed the DNA makeup of embryo-carrying barnacles that were collected both in and out of penis range. (See another barnacle picture.)

The results showed that every individual out of penis range had at least one genetic marker from a barnacle other than itself—suggesting they were getting the sperm from the ocean.

How Barnacles “Catch” Sperm Unknown

How the females get fertilized by spermy water is still unknown.

Barnacles cast sticky sperm masses into the water fairly regularly, so a “scenario that might happen is as the tide comes in and waves start to break over the top of [the male barnacles], clumps of sperm are picked up, and downshore individuals … could capture it,” Palmer said.

However they do it, the discovery is seminal: “It overturns a century of beliefs about what barnacles can, or cannot, do,” according to the study, published recently in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Still, there’s a lot the team doesn’t know—for one, they can’t fully rule out self-fertilization. So the next logical step? Barazendah and her team plan to videotape barnacles in the wild to, well, catch them in the act.

More sperm news:

Sperm Tracked in 3-D—A First
Deep-Voiced Men Have Lower Sperm Counts, Study Says
How a Man Produces 1,500 Sperm a Second
Sperm Recognize “Brothers,” Team Up for Speed

Comments

  1. Badway
    January 18, 2013, 9:44 am

    I’m curious..If I shot my wad in the ocean could I end up impregnating certain fish….

  2. Jonathan
    UK
    January 18, 2013, 7:47 am

    Too many cock jokes. Barnacles are wierd and they frighten me. I like the name ‘mantle cavity’.

  3. Pismo
    January 17, 2013, 6:23 pm

    I think I love this author. Steven chimes in with “…who’s been f***ing our barnacles???” and she responds! Thanks Ms. Dell’Amore :)

    Interesting article and I hope researchers continue to discover and inform.

  4. Anonymous
    USA
    January 17, 2013, 3:43 pm

    “the discovery is seminal” excuse the pun, of course.

  5. kent moon
    greenville
    January 17, 2013, 12:52 am

    Last time I swim in the ocean!!!!!

  6. Roberto
    January 16, 2013, 8:53 pm

    Something else to think about. What if pollution will kill off the sperm before it gets there or mutates it. I bet the sperm is encapsulated so it’s not just out in the open.

  7. OMahaD
    Omaha, NE
    January 16, 2013, 2:36 pm

    As do abalone (Haliotis spp). Sadly, once the population density declines below a critical threshold, the diluted sperm are unlikely to reach any potential mates.

  8. Stephen Colbert
    January 16, 2013, 2:09 pm

    Scientists have discovered embryos in barnacles with genetic markers from barnacles other than itself or its surrounding neighbors … which begs the question … who has been f***ing our barnacles???

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      January 16, 2013, 5:15 pm

      Hi Stephen, as the story says it’s likely coming from sperm in the water.

  9. Devin
    Colorado, US
    January 16, 2013, 11:59 am

    Barnacle give me the heebie-jeebies. I can’t tell you why, but they do. Given that, this was an interesting article. Strange, but quite interesting. Thank you! Cheers!

  10. Christine Dell'Amore
    United States
    January 16, 2013, 10:06 am

    Yes, barnacles are crustaceans. Thanks for the comment!

  11. anonymous
    ROMANNIA
    January 16, 2013, 9:56 am

    OK ONE THING I THOUGHT BARNACLES WERE CRUSTATIONS ARE THEY

  12. anonymous
    reading pa
    January 16, 2013, 9:52 am

    ok thats strange realy very awkward but funny in a way that i
    understand thuogh very creepy but cool 0-o