Barnacles on debris could provide clues to missing MH370: experts

Search for MH370: New Airplane Debris Investigated

Barnacles encrusted on a piece of plane debris that washed up on the French island of Reunion might help unravel the mystery of missing Malaysia Airlines (MLYAF.PK) flight MH370 that disappeared last year with 239 passengers and crew on board.

Malaysia said on Sunday the piece of debris, a 2-2.5 meter (6.5-8 feet) wing surface known as flaperon, had been identified as being from a Boeing (BA.N) 777, the same model as the missing Malaysian plane. Investigators in France are expected to determine whether the piece came from MH370 or not by Wednesday.

MH370 is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, about 3,700 km (2,300 miles) away from Reunion.

See crews combing the beach for new debris:

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Barnacles on debris could provide clues to missing MH370: experts
Joao de Abreu, President of Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM), holds a piece of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast of Mozambique at Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM) in Maputo on March 3, 2016. A hunk of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast will be sent to Australia where experts will examine whether it is a new piece in the puzzle of missing flight MH370, officials said. The fragment was reportedly found near Mozambique and could provide clues in the huge and costly Australia-led investigation into what happened to the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared nearly two years ago. / AFP / ADRIEN BARBIER (Photo credit should read ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Joao de Abreu, president of Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM), holds a piece of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast of Mozambique at Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM) in Maputo on March 3, 2016. A hunk of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast will be sent to Australia where experts will examine whether it is a new piece in the puzzle of missing flight MH370, officials said. The fragment was reportedly found near Mozambique and could provide clues in the huge and costly Australia-led investigation into what happened to the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared nearly two years ago. / AFP / ADRIEN BARBIER (Photo credit should read ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on March 3, 2016 shows a piece of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast of Mozambique at Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM) in Maputo. A hunk of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast will be sent to Australia where experts will examine whether it is a new piece in the puzzle of missing flight MH370, officials said. The fragment was reportedly found near Mozambique and could provide clues in the huge and costly Australia-led investigation into what happened to the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared nearly two years ago. / AFP / ADRIEN BARBIER (Photo credit should read ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on March 3, 2016 shows a piece of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast of Mozambique at Mozambique's Civil Aviation Institute (IACM) in Maputo. A hunk of suspected aircraft wreckage found off the east African coast will be sent to Australia where experts will examine whether it is a new piece in the puzzle of missing flight MH370, officials said. The fragment was reportedly found near Mozambique and could provide clues in the huge and costly Australia-led investigation into what happened to the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared nearly two years ago. / AFP / ADRIEN BARBIER (Photo credit should read ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists stand next to a police officer holding a piece of plastic found on the sea front of Saint-Denis, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on August 4, 2015. Last week a wing part washed up on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, and has been taken to France to for physical and chemical analysis. In one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history, MH370 inexplicably veered off course in March 2014 and disappeared from radars, sparking a colossal hunt that has until now proved fruitless. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer holds a piece of plastic found on the sea front of Saint-Denis, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on August 4, 2015. Last week a wing part washed up on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, and has been taken to France to for physical and chemical analysis. In one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history, MH370 inexplicably veered off course in March 2014 and disappeared from radars, sparking a colossal hunt that has until now proved fruitless. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Local residents look for debris on a beach of the Etang de Bois Rouge on the sea front of Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on August 4, 2015. Last week a wing part washed up on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, and has been taken to France to for physical and chemical analysis. In one of the most baffling mysteries in aviation history, MH370 inexplicably veered off course in March 2014 and disappeared from radars, sparking a colossal hunt that has until now proved fruitless. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Johnny Begue (C), who stumbled across a piece of plane wreckage from the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on the beach on July 29, 2015, help repair the costline in Saint-Andre on the east of the French island of La Reunion, on August 6, 2015. The two-metre (six-foot) long piece of wing, was half covered in sand and had barnacles encrusted on its edges. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers inspect metallic debris found on a beach in Saint-Denis on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean on August 2, 2015, close to where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week. A piece of metal was found on La Reunion island, where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week, said a source close to the investigation. Investigators on the Indian Ocean island took the debris into evidence as part of their probe into the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, however nothing indicated the piece of metal came from an airplane, the source said. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on August 2, 2015 shows metallic debris found on a beach in Saint-Denis on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, close to where where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week. A piece of metal was found on La Reunion island, where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week, said a source close to the investigation. Investigators on the Indian Ocean island took the debris into evidence as part of their probe into the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, however nothing indicated the piece of metal came from an airplane, the source said. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers leave the scene with container holding metallic debris found on a beach in Saint-Denis on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean on August 2, 2015, close to where where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week. A piece of metal was found on La Reunion island, where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week, said a source close to the investigation. Investigators on the Indian Ocean island took the debris into evidence as part of their probe into the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, however nothing indicated the piece of metal came from an airplane, the source said. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers inspect and photograph metallic debris found on a beach in Saint-Denis on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean on August 2, 2015, close to where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week. A piece of metal was found on La Reunion island, where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week, said a source close to the investigation. Investigators on the Indian Ocean island took the debris into evidence as part of their probe into the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, however nothing indicated the piece of metal came from an airplane, the source said. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers inspect metallic debris found on a beach in Saint-Denis on the French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean on August 2, 2015, close to where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week. A piece of metal was found on La Reunion island, where a Boeing 777 wing part believed to belong to missing flight MH370 washed up last week, said a source close to the investigation. Investigators on the Indian Ocean island took the debris into evidence as part of their probe into the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, however nothing indicated the piece of metal came from an airplane, the source said. AFP PHOTO / RICHARD BOUHET (Photo credit should read RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images)
Police carry a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion, in the east of the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on July 29, 2015. The two-metre-long debris, which appears to be a piece of a wing, was found by employees of an association cleaning the area and handed over to the air transport brigade of the French gendarmerie (BGTA), who have opened an investigation. An air safety expert did not exclude it could be a part of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing in the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YANNICK PITOU (Photo credit should read YANNICK PITOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Police and gendarmes carry a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion, in the east of the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on July 29, 2015. The two-metre-long debris, which appears to be a piece of a wing, was found by employees of an association cleaning the area and handed over to the air transport brigade of the French gendarmerie (BGTA), who have opened an investigation. An air safety expert did not exclude it could be a part of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing in the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YANNICK PITOU (Photo credit should read YANNICK PITOU/AFP/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 30: Debris found on the island of Reunion east of Madagascar, appears to be part of Malaysia Airlines MH370 that disappeared in 2014. (Photo by Graphic: Ahmet Burak Ozkan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A policeman and a gendarme stand next to a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion, in the east of the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on July 29, 2015. The two-metre-long debris, which appears to be a piece of a wing, was found by employees of an association cleaning the area and handed over to the air transport brigade of the French gendarmerie (BGTA), who have opened an investigation. An air safety expert did not exclude it could be a part of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing in the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YANNICK PITOU (Photo credit should read YANNICK PITOU/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman and a gendarme stand next to a piece of debris from an unidentified aircraft found in the coastal area of Saint-Andre de la Reunion, in the east of the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, on July 29, 2015. The two-metre-long debris, which appears to be a piece of a wing, was found by employees of an association cleaning the area and handed over to the air transport brigade of the French gendarmerie (BGTA), who have opened an investigation. An air safety expert did not exclude it could be a part of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing in the Indian Ocean on March 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / YANNICK PITOU (Photo credit should read YANNICK PITOU/AFP/Getty Images)
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Based on photographs, ecologists in Australia believe the crustaceans clinging to the wing piece are goose or stalk barnacles.

"Barnacle shells ... can tell us valuable information about the water conditions under which they were formed," said Ryan Pearson, a PhD student at Australia's Griffith University who is studying the shell chemistry of barnacles to determine migration patterns of endangered loggerhead turtles.

The technique is also used to study the movement of whales.

Experts analyze barnacle shells to determine the temperature and chemical composition of the water through which they passed to help reveal their origin.

While the technique could help narrow the area of the search for MH370 to within tens, or hundreds, of kilometers, it was unlikely to pinpoint an exact location, Pearson said.

Barnacles can be aged, based on growth rates and size. If the barnacles on the debris are older than the date MH370 went missing, it would rule it coming from that plane, said Melanie Bishop a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University.

Ecologists would look at whether the barnacles were on the surface of the flaperon or confined to the sides as that could indicate whether the debris moved on the surface of the water or was submerged.

The investigators in France would also be on the lookout for other organisms such as tube worms, coralline red algae or shellfish that could also provide clues.

Marine archaeologists study barnacles for clues about shipwrecks but this was believed to be the first time they will be studied to determine the fate of an airliner.

"It's a nice example of the unexpected ways that discovery research can be surprisingly useful in tackling new problems in different contexts," said professor Angela Moles, evolution and ecology research center at the University of New South Wales.

(Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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