Barnacle forensics may unlock clues in missing Malaysian plane

The small arthropods clinging to a piece of aircraft debris that washed ashore on an Indian Ocean island may provide valuable evidence in the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines plane, one of the greatest aviation mysteries in history.

Barnacles, dozens of which can be seen in photographs of the part from a Boeing Co. 777, are sometimes capable of providing scientists a road map of where whales or boats have traveled, said William Newman, an emeritus professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

Certain species can even provide a timeline for how long debris has been in the ocean, in some cases as precise as the number of days a barnacle’s shell has been growing, Newman said.

“It might provide a lot more than you think,” said Newman, who isn’t working on the probe of the missing plane. He is among a handful of biological oceanographers who’ve occasionally been called upon in police investigations or lawsuits to testify on barnacle forensics.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on March 8, 2014, diverted off its route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and flew into the Indian Ocean, investigators say. Months of sonar searches along thousands of square kilometers of ocean bottom haven’t yielded a shred of evidence about where it ended up.

The piece found on a Reunion island beach is known as a flaperon and came from a 777, according to people familiar with the investigation who weren’t authorized to speak publicly. The discovery has prompted a race to determine whether it came from Flight 370. While it hasn’t been directly linked to the missing plane, no other 777s are missing.

Newman said he couldn’t tell much from photographs of barnacles growing on the piece of wreckage. The ones he could see on pictures circulating on the Internet are oceanic stalk barnacles and appear from their size to be from one to six months old. The piece could have been in the water longer because barnacles get torn off or die and are replaced by younger ones, he said.

A closer examination of the sea creatures could show if they’re a different class of barnacles, known as sessile. Those would provide more precise information about how long they’ve been growing because of the way their shells develop, according to Newman.

Barnacles have been used to research whale behavior and to study enemy ship patterns during World War II, he said. Species of barnacles can be traced to different regions of the world.

In addition to his scientific work studying ocean temperatures and wildlife, he has been called on by police to assist murder investigations, studying barnacles on a body bag and a skull.

“It’s very powerful stuff,” he said.