Vultures and Human Decomposition

Written by Adrian Omar Ramirez, The University Star
February 9, 2012

The facility, known as the “body farm,” is a 26-acre outdoor human decomposition research laboratory at Texas State’s Freeman Ranch, and is the largest facility of its kind in the world. The body farm is used by the forensic science community to gain knowledge about human decomposition and developing methods for determining the post-mortem interval, or time since death.

“Part of the reason for this research is to get a better understanding of the decomposition process so we can use it to help estimate time since death,” said Daniel Wescott, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center. “A body left on its own may take months to become skeletonized, but vultures can skeletonize that body within a matter of hours.”

Many of the bodies are currently kept inside cages in order to prevent predators from getting to them. However, Texas State’s unique geographical location allows it to be the first facility to study how vultures directly interact with decomposing bodies.

“One thing we noticed was there was a huge vulture population,” said Kate Spradley, assistant professor of anthropology. “The first few bodies we laid out there, we noticed something was getting to them and scavenging them.”

Michelle Hamilton, assistant professor of anthropology, said there are both medical and legal implications for medical examiners, law enforcement and others who attempt to estimate an individual’s time of death.

Black and turkey vultures are the most common species in the area. There is a hypothesis that black vultures arrive at the sign of turkey vultures, which the facility hopes to test.

“Turkey vultures theoretically have better eyesight, and black vultures are supposed to be better at olfactory or smell abilities,” said Hamilton. “The turkey vultures appear first, but the black vultures come in such huge numbers they scare off turkey vultures.”

Vultures also cause damage to skeletons that may be confused with blunt-force trauma.

“Maybe someone will look at a skeleton with fractured ribs and might think the perpetrator had done those,” Hamilton said. “We’re actually seeing that the vultures are doing that.”

Wescott believes the project will allow for interdisciplinary research. A geography doctoral student from Louisiana State University is slated to participate in the project, and Wescott hopes to also include wildlife biology students.

“We want to try to understand what impacts they have (on) the environment,” Hamilton said. “Vultures not only affect the bodies, but also the ground surface and the geography. We want to see if we can track the patterns of vultures that scavenge.”

Spradley said she and the center would like to see the study done around 15 more times, but the research is not without its share of controversy.

“We received some comments and questions asking why we didn’t ask the Zoroastrians or study a Tibetan sky burial,” Spradley said. “The reason why we can’t go and study that is because it’s a religious practice. Most people at a funeral service don’t want a scientist there studying what’s going on.”

Other controversies have surrounded the use of donated bodies in the study.

“I’ve read some negative comments about how we could do that to someone,” Spradley said. “It’s important for me to convey that the people who donate their bodies to our facility know the type of research that we’re going to do.”

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