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Can Barnacles Kill Whales?

Have you ever seen a whale covered in barnacles and wondered – can those things kill the whale? Barnacles may seem small and harmless, but they can multiply and take over a whale’s body. Let’s dive into the fascinating relationship between whales and barnacles and find out if these crustaceans can take down the largest mammals on Earth.

Can Barnacles Kill Whales?

The short answer is no. Barnacles cannot directly kill a whale. While they may cause some nuisance, pain, and hindrance, barnacles are not lethal to whales. Here’s why:

Barnacles are a crustacean that attaches themselves to hard surfaces like rocks, ship hulls, and, yes, even whales. They cement themselves onto the whale’s skin using a strong glue-like substance. Once attached, they use their feathery legs to filter food from the water. They don’t feed on or damage whale skin.

The main downside barnacles pose to whales is extra drag. As more and more barnacles affix themselves, they create roughness and friction that slows whales down. This uses up more of the whale’s energy as it swims. However, barnacles alone are not enough to kill or severely harm a healthy whale. 

Whales also have thick skin and fat that protect them from any chafing or abrasions caused by their bumpy passengers. The outer skin naturally sloughs off over time, helping remove barnacles, too. 

While whale skin may get irritated, injured or infected in some cases, barnacles do not penetrate the body or cause internal harm. At worst, they are an annoying, drag-inducing nuisance – but not inherently lethal.

Do Whales Get Annoyed by Barnacles?

It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s very likely whales do get annoyed and bothered by barnacles on their skin. Here’s a closer look at how barnacles may irritate whales:

  • Roughness and friction – Having hundreds of rigid, shell-like barnacles sticking out of your skin would surely feel quite irritating as you swim through the water. The roughness creates drag and resistance that the whale must work against.
  • Extra weight – each barnacle doesn’t weigh much on its own, but hundreds or thousands of them spread across a whale’s body can add a lot of excess weight. This makes swimming and diving more difficult.
  • Chafing and wounds – Barnacles may rub against and chafe whale skin, causing painful sores and wounds, especially on older whales.
  • Itchiness and skin irritation – Barnacle cement and accumulated bacteria may cause itchiness and skin irritation for whales. The skin underneath barnacles can become red and inflamed.
  • Impaired temperature regulation – Barnacles may interfere with blood flow in whales’ outer skin layers, impairing their ability to control body temperature.
  • Energy drain – whales must work harder and expend more energy when covered in barnacles. They may become exhausted more quickly when heavily encrusted.
  • Impaired feeding – some barnacles near a whale’s mouth can obstruct eating and cause poor nutrition.

So, with all these adverse effects, it’s likely whales feel bothered and annoyed by barnacles, even if the whales don’t outwardly “complain.” Compared to their smooth skin, having crusty barnacle colonies surely causes discomfort and hassle for the poor whale.

What Do Whales Do To Get Rid of Barnacles

Whales have developed some clever techniques to remove pesky barnacles and keep them under control. Here are some of their go-to methods:

  • Rubbing against rocks or sand – Whales will seek out rocks, coral, or sandy shallows and deliberately rub them to scrape barnacles off their skin.
  • Breaching – Launching their massive bodies out of the water lets gravity and surface impact scrape many barnacles off when the whale splashes down. 
  • Spyhopping – Pulling upright out of the water may allow barnacles to sloop off under their own weight.
  • Spinning – Rapidly rolling and turning their bodies helps slough off external barnacles.
  • Tail slapping – Forcefully slapping their tails on the water, dislodging some barnacles.
  • Swimming inverted – Occasional inverted swimming helps redistribute barnacle buildup.
  • Social grooming – Some whales help groom each other, carefully removing barnacles from hard-to-reach spots with their teeth or rubbing against each other.
  • Natural skin shedding – Regular shedding of outer skin layers also removes many barnacles over time.

So whales take active steps to clean and scrape off barnacles when they become too bothersome. Their ingenuity helps them manage these pesky pests.

How Long Do Barnacles Live on Whales?

Barnacles tend to persist on whales for weeks or months at a time. The exact lifespan depends on the whale species, its habitat, and how effectively it can remove barnacles:

  • Baleen whales – Barnacles may survive anywhere from 2 weeks up to 3 months or more on humpbacks, greys, blues, fins, etc. Their shed skin helps remove barnacles.
  • Toothed whales – Barnacles tend to persist longer, 4-6 months or more, on sperm whales, orcas, dolphins, etc. Their skin sheds less often.  
  • Older whales – Barnacles accumulate more on older whales as the skin gets looser and less supple. They resist shedding.
  • Migratory whales – Barnacles drop off more readily on whales migrating long distances to breeding grounds.
  • Deep divers – Barnacles get crushed and damaged when whales dive deep, extending their lifespan when in shallow waters.

So, while barnacles are periodically wiped off, new ones quickly occur. A healthy whale is in a constant battle to remove these pesky passengers from their bodies throughout their lifetime.

Should You Remove Barnacles From a Whale?

In most cases, you should not attempt to remove barnacles from a live, wild whale you encounter. Here are some important reasons why:

* It’s illegal – removing barnacles would be considered harassment or harm to an endangered species. Leave any removal to officials only.

  • It’s dangerous – getting close enough to pick off barnacles could anger the whale and cause it to lash out and harm you. Steer clear.
  • It’s unneeded – healthy whales naturally shed barnacles on their own in most cases. Human intervention is not required.
  • You could hurt the whale – barnacle cement could remove some outer skin layers or leave open wounds if you rip them off forcefully.
  • It causes stress – the close human interaction would be very stressful and disruptive to the whale’s natural behaviour.
  • New ones will grow – the bare skin will quickly become re-encrusted with fresh barnacle larvae. Your efforts will be short-lived.

The only scenario where barnacle removal may be permitted is an injured or distressed whale that becomes stranded. In that rare case, a licensed marine veterinarian may carefully remove barnacles to ease the whale’s suffering. 

So, the rule of thumb is to leave the barnacles when it comes to whales in the wild. Let them deal with their clingy crustaceans in their own way.

Can Barnacles Move On Their Own?

Barnacles are stuck in one place for life once they cement themselves to a surface. However, their larvae are mobile and help spread barnacle populations. Here are some key facts about the barnacle movement:

  • Sessile adults – the shell-encased adults are permanently fixed in place. They cannot move by themselves.
  • Freely drifting larvae – After hatching, tiny nauplii larvae drift freely in ocean currents for weeks, distributing barnacle species.
  • Active selection – When ready to settle, cyprid larvae test surfaces with their antennules before choosing a home.
  • Cementing – Once committed to a location, cyprid larvae use special glands to adhere themselves permanently using an incredibly strong glue. 
  • Still, adults – the now sessile juvenile barnacle is rooted in place for the rest of its life, unable to detach its head from the cement.
  • Some limb movement – while anchored, adult barnacle legs can still rhythmically extend to capture food particles from the water.

Well, that covers whether barnacles can threaten whales and how whales cope with these clingy critters. While surely a nuisance, barnacles alone won’t take down a healthy whale. The relationship is more give-and-take than life or death. 

Whales and barnacles will continue their awkward coexistence for ages to come. Hopefully, this deep dive into whales and barnacles was interesting and informative!