Things I Learned at Science Camp (Part 1)

In science communication, one of the things we worry about endlessly is the so-called "echo chamber." That is, are we reaching anyone who doesn't already want to learn about science? Or are we just talking to the same self-selected group over and over again? This was a topic widely discussed at the recent gathering of science communicators in Malibu, CA at an event called #scicommcamp. The "unconference" was a weekend of workshops, discussion groups, and lectures for scientists interested in communicating their research to the public. While I learned a LOT about scicomm for the public, I also reveled in just how awesome my fellow scientists are! When they described concepts to me that were outside my field of expertise, I felt like a kid in a museum! I immediately went home and Googled around to find out more information. I wanted to share with you some of the things they taught me.

Barnacles are ALIVE!

This may seem completely obvious, but I honestly believed that barnacles were just deposits left behind by little critters after they attached to rocks and boats. A marine biologist at this conference explained to me that these little critters are alive, and spend almost their whole lives attached to a surface. 

But they start out swimming around, looking for a home! When they're born, they are in their "nauplius" stage. At this stage of development, it looks like a crazy sea-alien, complete with a single Cyclopsian eye in the middle of their heads and long horns that distinguish them from other free-floating larvae. A single adult barnacle can produce 10,000 larvae! Ew? 

Once they're done being these weird little sea-spider things (a phase of growth that lasts ~6 months), they grow into cyprids. Cyprids have all their feet pointing downward, and have grown a exoskeleton shell called a "carapace." Their only job in the cyprid stage is to find a suitable place to live (probably on a boat, rock, or whale, preferably near other barnacles). They use their antennae to feel out various surfaces, looking for tiny organisms living on the surface, or testing the wetness of the surface. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The barnacles aren't feeding during this time, but are instead using reserve energy from their previous stage of life. So as time goes on, they get more and more tired, and more and more desperate to find a good place to live. 

Finally, they find a good place to live, stick themselves to the surface (head first!), and stick their feet out into the open water. Over time, they build up a thick shell made of calcium deposits left over from their natural metabolism. Their feathery feet pop out of the shell periodically to stir the water and direct plankton into the mouth of their shell to be digested. 

It turns out that barnacles have been around for a long time. Marine biologists now believe that they were some of the first complex creatures to come on the scene after the Cambrian Explosion, over 500 million years ago! Way to go little guys!

Here's my picture from our night-hike along the beach! Some of these shells are empty, and some still have living critters inside them!

Here's my picture from our night-hike along the beach! Some of these shells are empty, and some still have living critters inside them!