Sea turtles are characterized by a wide variety of invertebrate ectoparasites. Few of these ectoparasites leave a permanent indication of their presence on the skeletal remains of their host taxa and thus represent ecological information doomed to be lost in the paleontological record. Some barnacle taxa provide an exception to this, in that they cause the formation of small, subcircular to circular divots, pits, and holes on the skull, mandible, carapace or plastron of sea turtles. Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) skeletons from Cumberland Island, Georgia, USA were examined to assess the presence, frequency, and loci of occurrence of barnacle pits, and to establish which taxa are involved in pit development.
Six types of divot and pit attributed to barnacles are identified in this study. Type I traces are shallow, oval/semi-circular in outline, with smooth, gently sloped bases. Type II traces are deep, hemispherical pits with smooth bases. Type III traces are deep, circular to subcircular pits with flat bases. Type IV traces are deep, circular to subcircular pits with multiple (4–6) small sub-pits on their bases. Type V traces are cylindrical, penetrative holes. Type VI traces comprise shallow ring-shaped grooves on the surface of the bone. Type I through III traces are identical to the ichnotaxon Karethraichnus lakkos. Type IV traces have not, as yet, been described in the rock record. Type V traces are identical to K. fiale. Type VI traces are identical to Thatchtelithichnus holmani. Barnacle taxa identified as emplacing non-penetrative divots and pits on C. caretta skulls, mandibles, and shell bones include Chelonibia caretta (Type I), Platylepas hexastylos (Types I–IV), Calyptolepas bjorndalae (Types I and II), and Stomatolepas elegans (Types I and II). Type V traces were most likely emplaced by either Stephanolepas muricata or Chelolepas cheloniae. Type VI traces reflect the former attachment of balanid or lepadid barnacles. Embedded barnacles were observed in epidermal material associated with Types I through IV traces but not for Type V and VI traces and thus the relationship is inferred for these latter traces.
Barnacle-related pits, divots, and holes are believed to result from barnacle mediated chemical corrosion into the outer surface of sea turtle bone. The occurrence of these traces provides one of the few preservable lines of evidence of barnacle interactions with sea turtle hosts. Identification of definitive barnacle borings in fossil material will provide evidence of the evolution of platylepadid barnacles and the development of their commensal relationship with chelonid turtles.