Marine Biologists Could Hold Key to MH370 Mystery

With every passing day, it becomes more likely that the ships scouring the southern Indian Ocean for signs of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will come up empty handed. (Indeed, many independent researchers suspect that the odds of success are already zero.) If nothing comes up before the search's scheduled wrap date this June, then the entire case will hang on a single piece of physical evidence: the flaperon that washed up in Reunion Island last July and is now being held by French judicial authorities at a facility near Toulouse, France.

The good news is that the flaperon could provide a wealth of information. I've seen photographs of the serial numbers located inside the plane, and I'm convinced that, despite my previously expressed reservations, they do indeed prove that the piece came from MH370. And experts have told me that the sea life found growing on it offers a number of different clues about the airplane's fate.

The bad news is that the French authorities have apparently made little effort to follow up.

As I've described earlier, the predominant form of life growing on the flaperon is an accumulation of goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. In all the world, the number of marine biologists who study these animals is tiny; those who have carried out peer-reviewed research specifically on animals of the genus Lepas could fit in an elevator. Each has contributed something unique to the field; each has a unique body of experience with which to inform the investigation of this important Lepas population. Yet the French authorities have reached out to none of them. (I have been informed that they have contacted two French marine biologists, one of whom is unknown to me and the other of which is an expert in crustaceans of the southern ocean; Lepas belong within this much broader category of animal.)

That's a shame, because only by tapping the world's leading experts in this little-understood species can we hope to wrest the most information from this solitary piece of evicence. Here's what we could learn:

  • Hans-Georg Herbig and Philipp Schiffer in Germany of the University of Cologne have carried out genetic analysis of the world's Lepas species to understand their geographic distribution. By examining the animals on the flaperon up close they could determine the mix of species growing on it, they could derive a sense of were the flaperon has drifted.

  • Knowing the species of the barnacles, and measuring their exact size, would allow scientists to gauge their age, and hence the amount of time that the flaperon has been floating in water warm enough for Lepas to grow in. Such an analysis has been performed forensically before: Cynthia Venn, a professor of environmental science at Bloomsburg University, helped Italian researchers identify the how long a corpse had been floating in the Tyrrhenian Sea, as described in their paper "Evaluation of the floating time of a corpse found in a marine environment using the barnacle Lepas anatifera."
  • By measuring the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the animals' shells, scientists could determine the temperature of the water through which they traveled as they grew. "All one needs in an appropriate shell, a fine dental bit in a handheld Dermel drill, a calculator and  access to a mass spectrometer," says legendary marine biologist Bill Newman, who helped pioneer the technique at the Scripps Instition of Oceanography in La Jolla. In the past, this technique has been used to track the passage of barnacle-encrusted sea turtles and whales. But again, it would require access to the flaperon barnacles.
  • Why haven't the authorities been more proactive in seeking help from the world's small band of Lepas experts? One possible answer is that they're befuddled. As I've described earlier, photographic analysis of the barnacles' size seems to suggest that they are only about four to six months old. This is hard to reconcile with a presumed crash date 16 months before the flaperon's discovery. Something weird might be going on--which would not be that surprising, given that the case of MH370 has been tinged with weirdness from day one.

    After nearly two years of frustration, the key to the entire mystery may well lie in this single two-meter long wing fragment. But if the authorities don't examine it--and publish their findings--we'll never know.