Investigators searching for clues about what caused the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to go down, and where, may have a surprising helper at their disposal: barnacles, those small crustaceans that attach themselves to things that dwell in the sea like whales or, well, airplane wreckage.
The debris, which was found last week on the small island of Reunion off the coast Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, has been almost confirmed to be part of the wing of a Boeing 777, belonging to the lost Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
International marine and aviation experts have a lot to examine as more objects--also believed to be from MH370 — wash ashore in Reunion. The job of the team of investigators — including oceanographers and other marine experts — is to figure out the route that that specific piece of debris took to wind up on that island.
Marine biologist Molly Lutcavage with the University of Massachusetts Boston School for the Environment has an idea that could help. She says that while oceanographers rely upon traditional methods like mapping the history of currents in the area, she hopes they won’t overlook the arthropods covering the piece of wing.
UMass marine biologist Molly Lutcavage explains how barnacles could function as a natural GPS to track the path of debris, likely from MH370, that is washing up on the island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.
"Their shells tell a story, and the calcarious composition of the shell basically tells a story about ocean temps and salinity that the barnacle grew in over its life span," Lutcavage said. "It occurred to me and separately to my former collaborator that those gooseneck barnacles on that debris could possibly be used to figure out what the path of that debris was over the life of those barnacles. So they could be used as part of the story of how that debris got to the location where it was found."
Lutcavage, who is also the director of the Large Pelagics Research Center at the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Marine Station, and her former collaborator, John Killingley, formerly of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., are experts in this type of barnacle research. They established that barnacle isotopes could be used to evaluate the shells of barnacles on sea creatures and objects in a paper they published this year in the journal Biogeosciences called “Stable isotopes in barnacles as a tool to understand green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) regional movement patterns.”
John Killingley, a retired paleo-geochemist and Lutcavage's former collaborator, has led research in the use of stable isotopes in barnacle shells to track the migration paths of deep-sea diving turtles.
Killingley, a retired paleo-geochemist currently living in Australia, contacted her last week when the debris was recovered and he noticed the object covered in barnacles. "He and I both saw it and thought the same thing at the same time, and emailed each other and said, 'Gee, we really hope that someone understands that those barnacles might be especially useful for … trying to understand whether or not this was actually a part of the plane and we really really hope that if there is anyway that the barnacles themselves could tell a story that could give some info and support a resolution to the story of what happened to that lost plane.’”
Lutcavage and Killingley studied the stable isotopes of a special species of barnacle which had evolved to live on the tongues of the deep-sea-diving Loggerhead turtle, which dives to over 3,000 feet in the ocean. The little arthropods latch on and stick out a tongue-like thing to catch food in the water as it passes. In the process, their biological histories are embedded into the barnacle shells.
Lutcavage explains the biology that researchers could use barnacle shells to figure out the origin of the plane debris.
Barnacles are extremely adaptable moochers and can make a life for themselves wherever — or onto whatever they choose to attach themselves. They get a free ride, which can lead them to unexpected places.
"If you can look at the oxygen and carbon records that are recorded by their shells, they actually grow in relation to the temps that they’re growing in," Lutcavage said. They also document a record of salinity. Thus, she says, “If you are able to finally sample that shell, and you know or can guess how long that barnacle lived, you can then go backwards to tell the story and reconstruct the [conditions] that the barnacle lived through.”
While oceanographers use all kinds of methods to figure out ocean current patterns, barnacles aren’t usually among them.
More on the different tools oceanographers use to map ocean currents.
“Oceanographers use some of the most simple tools — almost like a message in a bottle,” Lutcavage said. "Some of these include tracking and mapping the movement of currents through the use of buoys and satellites."
People have been figuring out local currents for centuries, if not millennia, says Lutcavage, “so oceanographers would be able to look at maps of what kinds of currents are found in the area and their strength and try to put together a possible track for that debris — how it might have landed — specifically where it was found in la Reunion."
Lutcavage says the shells can be analyzed in a lab with very fine techniques that yield surprisingly precise results. The barnacle, in fact, doesn’t even have to be alive. “Those barnacles could be put in a drawer somewhere — at least their shells — and would still be useful weeks to months if not years later.” Lutcavage said. The barnacles attached to Loggerhead turtles she studied lived about three years.
Lutcavage and Killingley hope that international researchers can make use of their findings in the obscure research area of stable isotopes in barnacle shells, if necessary.
“Different barnacles would have different life-spans," Lutcavage said. "The barnacles you see on that debris are what we call the gooseneck barnacles. So lets assume their life span was one to two years. We hope that any clues available from marine life, or the oceanographic records would be and we’re sure that investigators will be looking at currents, but we weren’t sure if they see this as a rather obscure area ocean science. The isotope ratios in of marine life, and marine sediments are studied around the world by many ocean scientists, but there are really not that many besides John Killingley and myself perhaps who have just looked at barnacle isotopes. So we thought: Ah! Maybe we should let people know about these thoughts and ideas.”
In this case, the tiny barnacles could provide crucial clues about the mysterious plane disappearance and — perhaps — provide a degree of closure for families of the Malaysia flight 370 passengers.