From: Phil Clapham (
Date: Thu Sep 14 2000 - 08:38:43 EDT


Interesting question. There is no symbiosis between whales and
barnacles as far as we can tell. Barnacles use the whale as a
substrate, essentially hitching a free ride and filter-feeding off the
water around the whale. If anything, they are a disadvantage for the
whale since they create some drag in the water.

There is a rather better case for symbiosis - albeit speculative - in
right whales. Right whales (genus Eubalaena - now recognized by many of
us as three species: E. glacialis in the North Atlantic, E. japonica in
the North Pacific, and E. australis in the southern hemisphere) have
odd-looking bumps on their heads called callosities. These are patches
of roughened skin ("cornified epithelium") which are natural and part of
the whale. However, the callosities (and some other places on the body)
are covered with hundreds of thousands of parasites called cyamids
("whale lice" is the common term). We know these are parasitic because
their guts have been found to contain whale skin. However, the
suggestion has been made that they may serve a cleaning function
(getting rid of dead skin). A more bizarre idea is that the cyamids may
somehow cue the whale in to densities of its prey (zooplankton, mostly
copepods) around it by somehow changing their behavior. The idea is
that, by sensing the activity of the copepods, the right whale may be
able to judge the density of prey right in front of it (since right
whales need high-density patches of copepods). There is no real direct
evidence for this idea, but it's an interesting hypothesis!

Phil Clapham

Kathleen L Walker wrote:
> Dear Mr. Clapham,
> We are studying symbiosis in my environmental science class(7th
> grade) at the Dallas Environmental Science Academy. My question is; Is
> there a symbiotic relationship between whales and barnacles or any other
> "tag-a-long" sea creature? Thanks for your time and help.
> Kjerstin Walker


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D. Large Whale Biology Program Northeast Fisheries Science Center 166 Water Street Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316 fax (508) 495-2258 Internet:

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