Underwater crustaceans could solve missing plane mystery

A piece of an air­plane wing that washed ashore on the island of Reunion in the West Indian Ocean this week is believed to be from missing Malaysia Air­lines Flight 370, according to some reports.

The plane car­rying 239 pas­sen­gers and crew went missing on March 8, 2014 on its way from Malaysia to China, and for 17 months the world has been waiting for a tan­gible clue as to what hap­pened. One piece—or, in this case, sev­eral pieces—of evi­dence that may help offi­cials deter­mine if the debris came from Flight 370 are the bar­na­cles growing on the debris.

Helmuth200Brian Hel­muth, a pro­fessor at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center, says that the bar­na­cles could clue inves­ti­ga­tors in to the debris’ likely path as well as to how deep it had sunk in the ocean. A bar­nacle is a marine crus­tacean with an external hard shell, which attaches itself to a variety of hard surfaces.

As anyone who has seen a TV show like Bones or NCIS knows, the crit­ters that live on a piece of forensic evi­dence tell us a lot about where it has been,” said Hel­muth, an expert in envi­ron­mental policy, eco­log­ical fore­casting and sus­tain­ability. He holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

Hel­muth explained that dif­ferent types of bar­na­cles thrive in dif­ferent parts of the ocean. Some only live in coastal areas, while others can only be found in the open ocean. The size of the bar­na­cles, he noted, could also be key to fig­uring out how long the debris had been in the water.

The bigger the ani­mals, the longer the wing was likely sub­merged,” Hel­muth said. “It’s pos­sible inves­ti­ga­tors could even use genetic infor­ma­tion from the bar­na­cles to back track to a par­tic­ular region of origin.”