Can Barnacles unlock the secrets of MH370 and Turtle migration?

While forensic scientists ponder the source of a barnacle-encrusted aeroplane wing thought to come from missing airline flight MH370, a PhD student is pioneering new research that could enable barnacles to reveal migration paths through the ocean.

Ecological Society of Australia’s 2015 Jill Landsberg Applied Conservation Scholarship winner, Ryan Pearson, from Griffith University in Queensland is looking to find out if the shell chemistry of barnacles can reveal the migratory origin of endangered loggerhead turtles.

“To conserve Loggerhead turtles, we need to know which parts of the ocean they use and when they use them.  Scientists have tried to do this by measuring the chemical composition of the turtles, but this doesn't always work."

“Not all turtles within a group eat the same things in the same places, so sampling skin tissues from a few doesn’t always tell us the big picture.”

Enter barnacles.  "Because barnacles are filter feeders, they all eat the same things in the same places, so their chemical composition will more accurately reflect where they've been in the ocean compared with the turtles".

Ryan’s project aims to circumvent the diet-based concerns of using turtle tissues by analysing the stable isotope signals within shell layers of barnacles who go along for the ride on migrating south Pacific Loggerhead turtles.

"These shell layers offer chemical information about the area of the ocean in which the turtle has been swimming and, therefore, could allow us to identify the  migratory origin of nesting turtles.", said Ryan.

Professor Angela Moles, ESA Vice President points out that, “if successful, this method has the exciting potential to be applied not just to loggerheads but to any other migrating marine species that has commensal barnacles. This will provide critical information for their conservation that has been missing until now.”

"Ultimately there is also the potential to track the source of other objects that wash up on our shores, perhaps even components of missing aircraft or ships."

Ryan will receive his award and $6000 research grant at the Society’s annual conference in Adelaide in December 2015, and will present his research findings at ESA16 in Fremantle.

Loggerhead turtles are listed as endangered worldwide by the IUCN.  A recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) action plan listed a better understanding of the use of foraging habitat as an ‘essential’ priority for the conservation of the south Pacific loggerhead population.

 Ryan Pearson 
 0404 007 348

Angela Moles
0448 080 128,
ESA Director-Hot Topics - Don Driscoll
0488 657 888

 ESA would like to gratefully acknowledge the trustees of the Jill Landsberg Trust Fund for their continuing support of post-graduate applied conservation research. The Jill Landsberg Trust Fund was established with a bequest from the family of Jill Landsberg, an outstanding Australian ecologist who made major contributions to the conservation of biodiversity in landscapes managed for primary production and to the conservation of threatened species. The Trust now funds an ongoing postgraduate scholarship in the field of Applied Ecology. More:
ESA is the peak professional scientific organisation for ecologists in Australia, with 1500 members from all states and territories. ESA has a 50 year history of supporting ecologists, ecological research and promoting ecological knowledge.