Jun 14, 2022 - News

How the freeze helped researchers' understanding of decomposition

Illustration of an increasingly extreme weather forecast

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A morbid question I posed recently sent me down a rabbit hole that involved last year's winter freeze and scientist's understanding of decomposition.

Stick with me here.

I called up Daniel Wescott, director of Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Center, to ask whether my dear, sweet Tex would gladly devour my body if the opportunity arose.

  • Wescott put it simply: Yes. Pets are known to eat their humans if they die and no other food is available. Got it.

But, but, but: That shouldn't come as a surprise, according to Wescott and other Texas State researchers at the university's body farm in San Marcos.

  • The handful of body farms in the U.S. help advance scientific knowledge of decomposition and further forensic research to solve crimes.

The big picture: Animals are opportunistic when it comes to food, and last year's winter freeze taught scientists even more about the decisions wildlife makes in times of stress.

Sort of like how we rummaged through our dark kitchens for a can of beans or old crackers during the freeze, wildlife near the Texas State body farm went into survival mode, too.

  • When the roads thawed and researchers returned to the forensic anthropology center, video footage showed that vultures weren't the only thing heading to the site for food.
  • For the first time ever, Texas State researchers captured a red-tailed hawk feeding on human remains.
  • Opossums, raccoons and a mockingbird also were captured on camera near the body.

What they're saying: "Most animals really only feed on stuff if they happen to come across it, but obviously in times of stress like that, they are going out of their way," Wescott told Axios.

If our triple-digit temps are any indication, Texans and their animal friends are currently much more likely to face severe heat than severe cold.

  • Extreme heat also can inform scientists' understanding of decomposition and time of death.
  • Maggots, flies and scavengers are more likely to stay put until early morning or nightfall to stay clear of the heat.

The bottom line: Researchers' understanding of scavengers, severe weather and other elements that impact decomposition can be key to solving crimes and furthering science.

  • 😉 But I’d rather not think about what my cat would do if she went hungry.

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