A Decade Later, a Tiny Creature Contradicts MH370's Fate

'New York' mag reveals more questions raised in study of barnacles that latched to debris
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 8, 2024 12:35 PM CST
Contradictions Emerge in Attempted Tracking of MH370
In this July 29, 2015, file photo, French police officers carry a piece of debris from a plane known as a "flaperon" on the shore of Saint-Andre, Reunion Island.   (AP Photo/Lucas Marie, File)

A lot has changed in the time since MH370 took off and disappeared 10 years ago today. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in our knowledge of a specific type of gooseneck barnacle. Lepas anatifera were found coating the chunk of plane wing that washed ashore on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion about 16 months after MH370 vanished. As New York reports, the discovery instigated years "of fruitful worldwide research into a previously obscure organism and unlocked the creature's potential to serve as a natural data logger in all kinds of investigations." Researchers believed that understanding how the barnacles grow on floating debris would allow them to trace the flaperon to the spot the plane went down. But Lepas have only uncovered more mysteries.

As Lepas tends to latch to and grow steadily on any object floating in the ocean, the aim is to determine how long an object has been in the water based on the largest barnacles in a clump. This data, combined with drift modeling, should indicate a likely time and area the object became open to a barnacle infestation. But various studies since 2015 have shown Lepas "grows at different rates and winds up at different sizes depending on the temperature of the water and how much there is to eat," per New York. The largest on MH370's flaperon was 36mm. It hasn't been studied, per LBC. But researchers found Lepas grew up to 35mm in 105 days in the Maldives, where the water temperature is similar to what the flaperon likely experienced in reaching Reunion.

If the flaperon had attracted barnacles for only a few months, where was it for the year or so after MH370 vanished? This isn't a question that applies just to the flaperon. "Of the three dozen or so pieces of the plane that have been collected, not a single one has marine life on it that matches what you would expect to see" after 16 months in the ocean, per New York. In another "apparent contradiction," scientists determined the flaperon must've floated with its long edge out of the water—yet this was the same edge populated by Lepas, which can't grow out of water. All this suggests "authorities' understanding of the case is badly flawed" and a solution will require them "to revisit their assumptions." Malaysia's government is in talks with marine robotics company Ocean Infinity about a new search, per the Guardian. CNN has more on efforts to find the missing plane here. (More MH370 stories.)

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