Barnacles could help solve the MH370 mystery, as scientists said chemical analysis of their shells could help retrace the journey of a wing part discovered on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean last week.
The fragment of an aircraft wing - a Boeing 777 flaperon - was covered with crustaceans identified by biologists as goose or stalk barnacles.
While air crash investigators have promised to determine by Wednesday whether or not the fragment belongs to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (missing since March 2014), the biologists have now suggested chemical analysis of the crustaceans could provide further clues about the aircraft’s final resting place.
"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.
From the barnacle shells scientists can learn about the temperature and chemical composition of water through which they travelled, narrowing down the area of the origin of the fragment to maybe tens or hundreds of kilometres.
If the barnacles prove to be older than the time passed since the disappearance of MH370, the plane would be ruled out as a source of the discovered fragment. This has been deemed unlikely, as no other Beoing 777 apart from MH370 is currently missing.
Moreover, German scientists said that if the barnacles are identified as the species known as Lepas australis, the area where MH370 likely crashed could be immediately confirmed.
“If we find Lepas australis on the wreckage, then we can prove with certainty that the plane crash occurred in cool southern marine areas west of Australia,” said Professor Hans-Georg Herbig from the University of Collogne, Germany.
This type of crustacean, the Professor said, does not live anywhere else in the world.
Ecologists would look also look 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.
Further investigation will likely look for other organisms, including tube worms, coralline red algae or shellfish which could also provide clues.
Marine archaeologists study barnacles for clues about shipwrecks, but this is 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 from the evolution and ecology research centre at the University of New South Wales.
Flight MH370 disappeared on the night of 8 March 2014 while travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. For reasons unknown, the plane diverted from its trajectory sharply to the south. It’s radar transponders were disabled and air traffic controllers had no further contact with the plane. Satellite data later revealed the plane must have remained airborne for hours before crashing into the remote waters of the southern Indian Ocean after running out of fuel.
239 people are believed to have died aboard the plane.
A massive search operation, the most extensive and costly in the history of aviation, failed to find a single trace of the aircraft after many months of effort.
The area where MH370 is believed to have come down is about 3,700km away from Reunion, but oceanographers said powerful ocean currents would easily have moved any debris for such a long distance in the amount of time that has passed since the disaster.