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Barnacles May Hold Clues in Lost-at-Sea Searches

Researchers say Lepas anserifera can reveal debris drift times and patterns
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 26, 2021 12:44 PM CST

(Newser) – Never underestimate barnacles. According to researchers in Australia, they might just help in tracing people lost at sea. Species of the Lepas anserifera genus of goose barnacle are among the most common found in biofouling, a fancy word for the buildup of organisms on a surface, and "play an important role in biofouling communities as foundation species," according to a study in Marine Biology. To learn more, researchers at the University of New South Wales monitored how the barnacles and other creatures attached to floating and fixed objects over six months. The Lepas, which only attach to floating objects, showed an average daily growth rate of 1.055mm per day, which was above the fastest daily growth rate observed during earlier research in the 1940s, and a fastest daily growth rate of about 1.45mm per day, per a release. That's not as unimportant as it might sound.

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If a fisherman goes missing and debris from his boat washes ashore, "we can measure and count the Lepas (as well as counting those other amphipods if present) to give a minimum estimate for how long that debris was drifting," lead author Thomas Mesaglio explains. What's more, experts can "reconstruct the sea surface temperature they experienced while attached to the debris" by performing an isotopic analysis of the barnacle shells. Researchers say this could be used to plot possible drift patterns. All this is hypothetical. However, co-author Iain Suthers says the calculations suggest the 36mm Lepas found on debris from the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 that washed ashore off the coast of Madagascar 16 months after the airliner disappeared in 2014 "were much younger than previously realized" and likely formed "nowhere near the crash site." (Read more discoveries stories.)

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