Hitchhiking barnacles could reveal migration routes of ancient whales

By Elizabeth Pennisi

Want to know where a migrating whale has been? Just check out the barnacles on its tail. As these hitchhikers grow, they pick up signatures of the surrounding ocean, providing a record of the whale’s travels, even ancient ones, researchers reported here last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

“Not only could [the approach] be used to look for how ancient migration patterns may have changed, it could also potentially be used to tell us something about the oceans that ancient migrators were visiting,” says David Cade, an integrative biology graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved with the work.

Worldwide travelers, whales swim thousands of kilometers between feeding and breeding grounds. Understanding where they go, both now and in the past, is critical to conserving these leviathans. Extensive monitoring and tagging have revealed much about whale migration, but “we have little direct evidence as to their prehistoric migration habits,” says Larry Taylor, a graduate student at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

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