Sunday, January 29, 2012

A grisly aspect of biology

While a lot of biology is manageable and relatively pain free to study and perform, there are certain aspects that make it uncomfortable to study. For example, when you induce disease in animals, you often have to "sacrifice" them in order to study them. Studying the rate of decomposition is also one topic that is unpleasant. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is one such place where this type of study occurs. The forensic anthropology department housed there has 1.3 acres of land to study the rates of human body decomposition in varying conditions (If anyone is interested in seeing further details, see this link:

Recently, a study has been conducted at Texas State University (which has a human decomposition laboratory similar to the "body farm" of the University of Tennessee) to study how fast vultures would pick a human body clean, and how far uneaten remains would be scattered from the original site (Vultures skeletonise corpse for the sake of forensics). How could this information possibly be used? There are many times when human remains are found in dry, desert like conditions such as the ones found in Texas.  These remains make it hard to pinpoint the time of death and the cause of death. Was it an animal attack? Or was it picked apart by vultures?

Scientists were able to videotape the work of vultures when they found a decomposing body after 37 days. The body was picked clean to the bone in 5 hours. This surprised scientists, as they had previously thought this process would have taken much longer. Scientists also tracked the dispersal of remaining body parts as the vultures came back to the site over 15 weeks, and hopefully this mapping will help in further understanding for future forensics.

No one ever said biology was clean and pretty. However, each aspect is important, even when it is one of decomposition.


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