Search for flight MH 370 – Vienna paleontologist suggests using Crustaceans to help interpret aircraft wreckage

10. August 2015
Wreckage from the missing Malaysia Airline MH 370 was found on July 29th washed ashore on the French island of Reunion in the western Indian Ocean. The aircraft, a Boeing 777-200, crashed on March 8, 2014, most likely in a remote section of the Indian Ocean west of Australia. The recent debris found at Reunion Island is widely interpreted to be a part – a flaperon – from the missing airplane.

The wreckage is encrusted with and infested by crustaceans of the group Lepas, pelagic goose barnacles. Larvae of such stalked crustaceans settle on hardgrounds such as wood, ship hulls, or wreckage drifting and floating on the ocean surface. The study of these crustaceans could help to determine the drifting history of the aircraft debris; in particular, it might be possible to understand the drifting route from the potential crash site in the Indian Ocean, 4500 km from Australia, to Reunion Island. Ocean currents, such as the north-directed Western Australian Current and, subsequently, the west-directed Southern Equatorial Current could have forced the aircraft part in the direction of Reunion Island.

In addition, the state of development of colonies and the ontogeny (state of development) of individuals of these lepadid crustaceans can help to constrain the time span during which the wreckage was drifting at the sea surface forced by sea surface currents and winds. "Infestation and colonization occurs immediately after the object falls into the sea", says Alexander Lukeneder, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Different areas in the Indian Ocean are inhabited by different species, of such “bivalve”-like and stalked crustaceans. The species Lepas anatifera, Lepas anserifera, and Lepas pectinata are almost cosmopolitan species, whereas Lepas indica is restricted to the northern parts of the Indian Ocean (Bengalian Sea, South China Sea) and Lepas australis is restricted to the southern parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. "If Lepas australis, occuring also in the Indian Ocean west of Australia, infested the Boeing flaperon, the general area in which the aircraft hits the Indian Ocean could be better constrained", says Alexander Lukeneder. A detailed taxonomic investigation of the encrusting marine organisms would be of crucial importance. Other encrusting marine taxa, such as bryozoans, would help to strengthen this assumption. The reason for the airplane crash of Malaysia Airline MH 370 is still not clear and the search area 1500-2500 km west of Perth is speculative.
© NHM Wien
Lepas pectinata on Spirula shell
© NHM Wien