Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles: What’s to Learn?

1024 678 Roddy Carter

As a child, I enjoyed reading the mythical European comic books Tintin, by Hergé. The ranting of Captain Haddock with his bright red alcohol-tinged features always amused me. I never understood, until now, why he struggled with chronic frustration, or why barnacles were the metaphor of his irritation.

Most of the time, when I come across an interesting natural species or niche, I can identify an analogous human organizational model or challenge that we can improve through this natural insight. In a few instances, I am able to find human solutions that Mother Nature could learn from. In this article, I describe a family of creatures that are highly successful. Mother Nature has been ingenious in devising strategies that enable their success, against significant odds. I am struggling to find a human analog that can benefit from this example. Perhaps this readership can help!

On one of my recent marine adventures, I sat watching a group of barnacles feeding. These fascinating creatures are crustaceans, similar biologically to crabs, lobsters and shrimp. The primary difference is that they are not mobile like their creepy crawly relatives. They are “sessile”, a fancy name for an animal that lives its life anchored or tethered to something or someone else. They protect themselves with a hard shell, but their encasement is more of a fortress than the relatively flimsy exoskeleton of other crustaceans.

As I watched these little creatures that are glued to the rocks with an almost indestructible bond, I was struck by the extraordinary challenges they face to thrive both individually and collectively. They are briefly mobile as larvae. Looking like tiny shrimp, they float/swim/crawl to a secure spot they choose very carefully, where they deposit a super-strong glue that then locks them down for life. Here they mature into an adult, secreting a thick protective shell for a home.

The first challenge in this modus operandi relates to their individual wellbeing. How do you feed in a fluid environment, surrounded by swirling water, when your head is firmly cemented to the ground? Mother Nature solved this with pragmatic genius. The barnacle has a little trap door operated by a small muscle. Living in the intertidal zone, they are sometimes covered by water, other times not. When they are dry, they close the door firmly to prevent dehydration. When they are submerged, they quickly protrude their retractile feather-like feet through the open door, “fishing” for tiny particles of food that happen to drift by. Interestingly, these little appendages have gills, and also serve as the organism’s lungs. Nevertheless, this entirely opportunistic filter-feeding pattern seems highly risky. The only influence the barnacle exerts over their scavenging success is to choose a neighborhood likely to have a rich drifting food supply. After that, it is pure chance that ensures their health; a highly risky strategy, at first glance. Watching my little friends urgently extending their thrashing limbs each time the water covered them with a passing wave hinted at their desperation, and dependence on luck for sustenance.

The second and third challenges relate to individual and species growth respectively. The size of a barnacle is directly related to its energy supply. When food is plentiful, they quickly grow up against their dense shell. Unlike molluscs that migrate to bigger quarters when they outgrow their shells, Nature has equipped these little creatures with the ability to build onto their original homes; a simple solution to a restrictive challenge. The bigger headache, by far, is how to grow as a species and perpetuate their DNA in the form of offspring. How do you find a mate, when you are so firmly anchored?

Mother Nature has evolved several propagation solutions for these immobile creatures. Although barnacles are hermaphroditic (they have both male and female reproductive organs), they cannot self-fertilize. They must find a partner. Most species shoot their sperm and eggs out into the water and simply hope for best. This strategy, known as “broadcast spawning”, relies on the chance meeting of the floating sperm and eggs – a low probability exercise in churning intertidal waters. In other species, the male shoots his sperm out into the vast surrounding waters, an activity known as “spermcasting”. Nearby females hope to catch sperm as it floats by, internalizing and fertilizing their stay-at-home eggs. In other species, the male barnacles have developed massive penises that can extend as much as 8 times their own length to find suitable females for impregnation. Calmer waters allow for longer, more flimsy male sexual organs, while more turbulent neighborhoods require shorter, thicker male organs, further limiting the radius in which a barnacle can be sexually active. Regardless of the particular “work-around”, like the feeding solutions, barnacle procreativity seems to be highly risky proposition.

Against considerable odds, and despite crafty solutions, you might expect barnacles to be a struggling race. On the contrary! They are highly successful, almost ubiquitous in their presence and surprisingly resilient to pollution, climate change and predation. Actually, they are so successful that they are a problem to our own maritime pursuits. Barnacles quickly populate the hulls of new ships, slowing cruising speeds down as much as 10% and increasing fuel consumption as much as 40%, and cost the US Navy an estimated $500 million each year.

All this brings me to my dilemma, as expressed in the title of this article, and quoting the flustered Captain Haddock from the Tintin books. What model of ingenuity and prosperity can we identify in our own organizational compendium that is similar to the life of a shackled barnacle? Would we ever predict an immobile, growth-restricted, expansion-challenged business model to be similarly successful? Would any one of us be happy starting an organization, whether profit or non-profit, that simply stood in one place, trusting that income would fall from the heavens? I don’t believe that this extraordinary natural phenomenon has an organizational parallel. What am I missing?

Have fun,

Roddy

(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at Body-Corporate.org if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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