Around 1,220 barnacle species are currently known. The name "Cirripedia" is Latin, meaning "curl-footed".
Barnacles are encrusters, attaching themselves permanently to a hard substrate. The most common, "acorn barnacles" (Sessilia) are sessile, growing their shells directly onto the substrate. The order Pedunculata ("goose barnacles" and others) attach themselves by means of a stalk.
Most barnacles are suspension feeders; they dwell continually in their shell - which is usually constructed of six plates - and reach into the water column with modified legs. These feathery appendages beat rhythmically to draw plankton and detritus into the shell for consumption.
Although they have been found at water depths up to 600m, most barnacles inhabit shallow waters, with 75% of species living in water depths of less than 100m, and 25% inhabiting the zone. Within the intertidal zone, different species of barnacle live in very tightly constrained locations, allowing the exact height of an assemblage above or below sea level to be precisely determined.
Since the intertidal zone periodically desiccates, barnacles are well adapted against water loss. Their calcite shells are impermeable, and they possess two plates which they can slide across their aperture when not feeding. These plates also protect against predation.
Barnacles are displaced by limpets and mussels, who compete for space. They also have numerous predators. They employ two strategies to overwhelm their competitors: "swamping" and fast growth. In the swamping strategy, vast numbers of barnacles settle in the same place at once, covering a large patch of substrate, allowing at least some to survive in the balance of probabilities. Fast growth allows the suspension feeders to access higher levels of the water column than their competitors, and to be large enough to resist displacement; species employing this response, such as the aptly named Megabalanus, can reach 7 cm in length; other species may grow larger still.
Competitors may include other barnacles, and there is (disputed) evidence that balanoid barnacles competitively displaced chthalamoid barnacles. Balanoids gained their advantage over the chthalamoids in the Oligocene, when they evolved a tubular skeleton. This provides better anchorage to the substrate, and allows them to grow faster, undercutting, crushing and smothering by the latter group.
Once metamorphosis is over and they have reached their adult form, barnacles will continue to grow by adding new material to their heavily calcified plates. These plates are not moulted; however, like all ecdysozoans, the barnacle itself will still molt its cuticle.
Most barnacles are hermaphroditic, although a few species are gonochoric or androdioecious. Typically, recently molted hermaphroditic individuals are receptive as females. Self-fertilization, although theoretically possible, has been experimentally shown to be rare in barnacles .
The sessile lifestyle of barnacles makes sexual reproduction difficult, as the organisms cannot leave their shells to mate. To facilitate genetic transfer between isolated individuals, barnacles have extraordinarily long penises, up to 15cm in length: the largest penis to body size ratio of the animal kingdom.
The geological history of barnacles can be traced back to the early Palaeozoic (in the order of 4-500 million years ago), although they do not become common in the fossil record until the Neogene (last 20 million years). In part their poor preservation is due to their restriction to high-energy environments, which tend to be erosional - therefore it is more common for their shells to be ground up by wave action than for them to reach a depositional setting. It is also possible that the group was more minor in the past.
Barnacles can play an important role in estimating palæo-water depths. The degree of disarticluation of fossils suggests the distance they have been transported, and since many species have narrow ranges of water depths, it can be assumed that the animals lived in shallow water and broke up as they were washed down-slope. The completeness of fossils, and nature of damage, can thus be used to constrain the tectonic history of regions.
Barnacles were first fully studied and classified by Charles Darwin who published a series of monographs in 1851 and 1854. Darwin undertook this study at the suggestion of his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, in order to thoroughly understand at least one species before making the generalisations needed for his theory of evolution by natural selection . Historian of science and novelist Rebecca Stott has published a detailed account of Darwin's eight years studying barnacles in a book called Darwin and the Barnacle (Faber, 2003) which challenges the supposition that Darwin was using the barnacle project as a way of delaying writing the book on species which would become Origin of Species by Natural Selection.
Barnacles are of economic consequence as they often attach themselves to man-made structures, sometimes to the structure's detriment. Particularly in the case of ships, they are classified as fouling organisms. Some barnacles are edible by humans, and goose barnacles (e.g. Pollicipes cornucopia) are treasured as a delicacy in many Mediterranean countries. The resemblance of this barnacle's fleshy stalk to a goose's neck gave rise in ancient times to the notion that geese, or at least certain seagoing species of wild goose, literally grew from the barnacle. Most notably, the wild Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis), whose eggs and young were rarely seen by humans because it breeds in the remote Arctic, got its popular name because it was imagined to grow from gooseneck barnacles.
Some authorities regard Cirripedia as a full class or subclass, and the orders listed above are sometimes treated as superorders. This article follows Martin and Davis in placing Cirripedia as an infraclass of Thecostraca and in the following classification of cirripedes down to the level of orders :
Infraclass Cirripedia Burmeister, 1834