Sometimes a story just drops into your lap, or more accurately into your e-mail box.
That was the case last October when I received an inquiry about a mystery creature. But since I believe in saving for a rainy day, the story has waited until now.
I received a well-written, humorous, and descriptive inquiry from Jamie Katz, who even did some of the research for me.
Jamie, along with his wife Lisa and son Bruno, were walking Moshup Beach when they saw “scattered along the tide-line several hundred strange sea creatures among the beached seaweed.” Although they had been summering on the Vineyard for 15 years, this was their first sighting of this particular critter.
He went on with a very detailed description: “They were a collection of what looked like organic clamshells — the shells were pliable and stretched and moved, opened and closed a bit. Each ‘shell’ had a one or two or three-inch neck that reminded us of steamers; the necks stretched and contracted. They were clustered in groups of two to 10, and each neck in a group met in a central white sponge-like clump. If you gently squeezed the central sponge, the creatures reacted by contracting their necks and closing and retracting their shells. On closer inspection, inside each shell was a series of varying-length tentacles, and a small “mouth” surrounded by many small tentacles. After handling them a bit, the creatures would brave out of the shells more and more, protruding their tentacles further and further out.”
Jaime said of these animals, “They really freaked us out because they seemed much different than the other sea creatures we’ve marveled at over the years — their shell was under their control, not a hard rock-like substance; their ‘neck’ seemed umbilical, but consciously controlled; the central sponge that joined several seemed like a placenta.”
And then he got down to the business of identification. “We roved the beach and stopped people who we thought looked like the type who would be expert in marine biology (and what are those types supposed to look like anyway?!). Surprisingly, most people weren’t even seeing the creatures on the beach at all. And no one had much of a clue what they were. (Even one man who said he had been a marine-biology major in college 40 years ago had no idea.) People guessed: gestating squid? Octopus? Clams? A molting crab?”
“Finally a woman (who didn’t look much like a marine biologist but who did look like a long-time local) dismissively said, “Oh, those are just barnacles!” That didn’t sound right to me: I thought of barnacles as static, rock-hard, rock-like creatures; these were wiggly, tentacled, slimy, and active.”
Barnacles were the right answer, but these were not the acorn barnacles most of us know and perhaps don’t love, considering their sharpness and ability to cut our bare feet and cling to our boats. These were a type of gooseneck barnacles, the more adventurous of the barnacles that prefer to be out in the open ocean.
Occasionally they wash up in large numbers on the shore.
Jamie and his family weren’t the first folks to have trouble identifying these animals. In medieval times they were thought to be the fruit of goose trees that hatched geese — no kidding. This is a major mix-up, since gooseneck barnacles are neither plants nor bird eggs. They were, of course, eventually identified as a crustacean and an exclusively marine animal.
And, inevitably, soon someone decided to taste them. Gooseneck barnacles are considered delicacies in Italy and Spain, and wild-foods epicurean Euelle Gibbons was known to take a bite. He described them as “like lobster, but not nearly as good.” Then again almost anything tastes okay with some butter and garlic. As it happens, gooseneck barnacles are in fact crustaceans, related to crabs and lobsters.
I can’t improve on Jamie’s great description of the odd appearance of clusters of these surprising-looking filter feeders. When trying to identify them, though, I suppose it’s no surprise people get stuck: barnacles produce one of the world’s strongest natural adhesives.
Keep those sightings and inquiries coming, because like the barnacles, in the dead of winter when things are quiet in the natural world and All Outdoors topics scarce, I sometimes find myself between a rock and a hard place.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.