Dramatic phenotypic plasticity in barnacle legs (Balanus glandula Darwin): magnitude, age dependence, and speed of response

Evolution. 2003 Jun;57(6):1281-90. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2003.tb00336.x.


The precise dependence of barnacle leg form on flow suggests the wave-swept environment imposes strong selection on suspension feeding limbs. I conducted three experiments to determine the mechanism, age dependence, and response time of cirrus variation in the acorn barnacle Balanus glandula. (1) To test whether cirrus variation arises via genetic or environmental mechanisms, I transplanted juvenile barnacles from one wave-exposed and one protected population into high and low flow conditions. Both populations exhibited similar abilities to modify cirri in response to experimental velocities: transplanted barnacles grew legs up to 84% longer in low flow. A small (up to 24%), but significant difference between source populations suggested slight genetic divergence in leg form. (2) Because flow is heterogeneous over space and time, I tested whether cirrus plasticity was limited to juveniles by transplanting both juveniles and adults from exposed and protected shores into quiet water. Remarkably, both juveniles and adults from the wave-exposed population produced legs over 100% longer than the original population, whereas protected barnacles remained unchanged. (3) A third transplant of adults into quiet water demonstrated that wave-exposed B. glandula modified cirrus form very quickly-within 18 days, or one to two molts. Results from these experiments suggest that variation in cirrus form is largely environmentally induced, but genetic differences may account for some variation observed among field populations; spatial and temporal flow heterogeneity appear to have selected for extreme flexibility of feeding form throughout a barnacle's life; and flow heterogeneity in the wave-swept environment appears to have selected for rapid ecophenotypic responses in the form of feeding structures.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Animals
  • Environment*
  • Extremities / growth & development*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Phenotype*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Thoracica / anatomy & histology*
  • Thoracica / growth & development