What’s in a name? Barnacle Geese and Goose Barnacles

A tweet by Maya Plass has reminded me that for ages I’ve been meaning to do a blogpost about one of my favourite nature myths. So here goes, and apologies to those who know it already.

What is in a name?

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Barnacle Goose Heslington Lake, York, Sept 2015

Barnacle Geese. Why ‘Barnacle’? They don’t look like barnacles. They don’t eat barnacles. So where does the name come from?

We might hope to find an answer by looking at the meaning of the word (this is called ‘etymology’). But this too can be frustrating.

You trace the word barnacle and you basically get variants of, well, barnacle. You have the Old English bernake. The French bernaque. The Latin bernacca. But a little further back, into deep Celtic roots, we get to baranikos. A word for a hill or rocky or barren place. So maybe now we are getting somewhere. After all, barnacles live in rocky places, so that must be where we start, right?

Yet even now we have a problem. The earliest known uses of Barnacle are in conjunction with the goose, not the crustacean. So in historical usage we first have the goose, and later the barnacle.

So if linguistics won’t help us, what will? Here comes mythology to save us all!

By the 13th Century, medieval scholars such as Vincent of Beauvais were recording a very clear connection. The geese came from the crustaceans. It’s obvious, just look at them:

Goose Barnacles With kind permission of Maya Plass

Goose Barnacles
With kind permission of Maya Plass

Okay, maybe not that obvious. So what was their thinking?

Well, they would only see Barnacle Geese in winter, and never as an egg or a chick. They didn’t know, as we do now, that the geese bred in the arctic and migrated South for winter (we are a good 100 years from really starting to get the idea of migration). They saw a barnacle in summer, and a goose in winter. After all, doesn’t a Goose Barnacle look a bit like the head and neck of a Barnacle Goose? And if it is washed up on a beach, clinging to driftwood? Well then logically these geese grow on trees…

The likes of Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) writing in the 13th Century, even claimed to have seen the geese emerge, as did several others. In the 16th Century John Gerard and Sebastian Munster both illustrated accounts with woodcuts showing a ‘barnacle goose tree’ and emerging geese.

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But did they really believe this? They clearly didn’t see it happening, so why claim otherwise? Here, Giraldus is interesting. He states that many clerics would happily eat Barnacle Geese when fasting. The rules on fasting were that you couldn’t eat anything of, or born of, ‘flesh’. So no birds or mammals. But fish and seafood was fine (their notion of flesh being different to ours, even though many modern vegetarians will eat seafood). So if the Barnacle Goose wasn’t born like a normal bird or mammal, it was suddenly a very convenient exception to the rule.

Giraldus doesn’t agree with this jiggery-pokery. But could the myth have emerged just to allow some hungry monks to cheat the rules on fasting? The question appeared in more than one culture though, including amongst 12th Century French Jews. So maybe that similarity really did strike, and a form of logic tied the two.

In the 18th Carl Linnaeus recorded this myth for posterity in the scientific name of the Goose Barnacle, Lepas ansifera (ansifera translates as ‘goose-bearing’), even though by this point the true nature of the Barnacle Goose, and the Goose Barnacle, was understood.

It’s easy to throw scorn at early ideas on nature, and in reading this you may well be pointing and laughing at all these meat-starved monks. But they were scientists in many ways. They made observations, drew inferences, and reached a hypothesis. The hypothesis was rejected as more evidence was found. That’s how science is supposed to work. So whatever their true motives, let’s give a thankful nod to Gerald and John and Sebastian for such a lovely idea, and an illustration of a crucial principle.

Barnacle Goose Heslington West, York, January 2014

Barnacle Goose
Heslington West, York, January 2014

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This entry was posted in Biology, Birds, Invertebrates, Scientific Terminology, Wildlife stories, Zoology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s in a name? Barnacle Geese and Goose Barnacles

  1. Emily Scott says:

    I can see how the barnacles do look like the hard beak of a goose – just with a different size and shape body – I applaud the monks for their imagination! They were trying to understand the world around them, and without the benefit of our modern technology and discoveries it must often have seemed baffling.

  2. radicalhoney says:

    What a wonderful post. Thank you. And yes, I agree that that is exactly what science is. I, for example, love ‘phlogiston’, which was supposed to be the substance held within things and which burned if something caught fire. It is a completely sensible idea and then they worked out that it was wrong and thought again. People seem to find the idea funny now but I don’t see why. I’m sure that we think all sorts of ridiculous things without knowing, or testing, them!

    • David C says:

      Phrenology is another interesting one. Now we tend to dismiss it as ‘reading bumps’ but at the time it was actually a radical difference of opinion as to whether the human brain was amorphous or structured, and in some ways the phrenologists were right about it having distinct areas.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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