When it comes to human decomposition, scientists have a pretty good understanding of what happens shortly after you die. But what happens months or years later is mostly a mystery, and that makes it hard for law enforcement to figure out how a person died and, ultimately, provide answers for loved ones of the deceased. That’s where anthropological research facilities (a.k.a. body farms) come in.
Transcript of this Episode
Sam Jones: In December, 1977, forensic anthropologist William Bass received a call. Law enforcement had found a body just outside Nashville, seemingly dumped in a recently disturbed grave. They were hoping Bass—who was at the University of Tennessee Knoxville—could come and estimate this man’s time of death, so that they could begin piecing together who he was, what might have happened to him, and who could be responsible. When he arrived at the cemetery, Bass found the man’s corpse still had bits of clothing on it—pieces of a tuxedo shirt, pants, a vest, a coat, and a white glove still on his right hand. The body wasn’t exceptionally decomposed—Bass could still ID his intestines and there was even some flesh still on his bones.
So Bass made a call: this man was somewhere between 25 and 28 years old, and had been dead for a few months to a year.
Then, a few days later, more evidence had been gathered that allowed law enforcement to identify the man. He was a 26 year old colonel named William Mabry Shy—so Bass was right about his age. But Colonel Shy had been dead for 113 years.
Sam: Welcome to Tiny Matters, a science podcast about things small in size but big in impact. I’m your host, Sam Jones, and I’m joined by my co-host, Deboki Chakravarti.
Today on the show, we’ll be talking about death and human decomposition. We’re not going to get super graphic with anything but if that intro already made you a little unsure of if you want to keep listening, maybe check out one of our other episodes. Or, give it a try, and hopefully you’ll leave just as fascinated about this topic as I am.
Alright back to the mystery corpse.
Deboki Chakravarti: So, as Sam said, colonel Shy had been dead for more than a century. As it turned out, he died during the Civil War and was then embalmed and buried in a cast-iron coffin. The combination of those two things allowed him to stay looking…not super dead… for a very long time, until grave-robbers dug him up in 1977. For Bass, as an anthropologist, this was a pivotal moment. He saw it as a blatant example of the importance of understanding how different circumstances—like weather or the type of burial—affect decomposition.
Sam: And so, in 1987, Bass and the University of Tennessee Knoxville officially established the first anthropological research facility, more commonly referred to as a “body farm.” It’s a facility people can donate their bodies to after they die to improve scientists’ understanding of what happens as we decompose. That knowledge allows law enforcement, for example, to calculate time of death and better understand the circumstances surrounding it. It allows investigators to start answering questions like, ‘does this scene where the body was found look like part of a natural trajectory? Or did something else happen?’ ‘Is there decay in some other part of the body that would indicate there was an injury or a wound?’ And, ultimately, this work can provide answers for loved ones of the deceased.
Deboki: When it comes to human decomposition, scientists have a pretty good understanding of what happens in the first hours and days. So before we get into the longer-term stuff, let’s start with that.
When someone dies, they stop breathing and their heart stops, which means new oxygen isn’t coming in. There’s a compound called Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, that provides the energy to drive tons of processes in your body, and to make ATP you need oxygen.
So as oxygen runs out, ATP starts running out, and everything goes downhill quickly from there. For example, you need ATP to move your muscles. And without it, a protein in your muscle cells called myosin is essentially locked in place and your muscles stiffen. That stiffness is referred to as “rigor mortis” which is a term you might recognize—I think if you’ve watched more than a few episodes of CSI or Law & Order you’ve probably heard it.
Sam: While all of this is happening, the blood that typically flows through your veins and arteries begins to pool in your tissues, following gravity to parts of the body that are lowest, giving those regions of your skin a bruised appearance. This is called livor mortis.
And without oxygen, the carbon dioxide and water that your cells produce when you’re alive accumulate and react, forming carbonic acid which makes your blood more acidic and causes your tissues to start breaking down. As that happens, bacteria that likely didn’t bother you when you were alive start to take over. And as they digest your tissues they release gasses like methane and hydrogen sulfide, which lead to bloat and…many smells. Hydrogen sulfide is known for its rotten egg aroma.
Deboki: The smells of death and how they’re impacted over time and by the environment is something that interests analytical chemist Nuwan Perera. Nuwan is a professor in the forensic science program at Western Carolina University. He has been working in forensics for a while, but before studying decomposing bodies, he was studying… paint.
Paint forensics isn’t something I’d thought of before we talked with Nuwan, but when you have a hit and run accident there’s usually a paint sample left at the crime scene, maybe a smear on the other car or a chip of paint. And, to track down the driver, chemists will analyze the layers of paint and the pigments and other compounds present in the sample to try to match them to the model and make of a vehicle and, ideally, where it was manufactured.
Sam: Now, Nuwan works to identify the chemicals coming off of bodies as they decompose— that belong to a class of compounds called volatile organic compounds. He told us that, typically, if a person is missing, law enforcement will use cadaver dogs, which have been trained to be able to smell for these compounds. And one place they might be trained is a body farm.
Nuwan Perera: If the body farms are not available, they use other methods to train these dogs. Sometimes they use human blood. Sometimes they use teeth, sometimes they use clothes. Things like that.
Sam: That’s Nuwan, who told us that another training method is using pseudo scents—mixtures of chemicals that are supposed to replicate relevant volatile organic compounds. But, according to Nuwan, there’s some research showing that dogs trained on pseudo scents don’t perform like the ones trained on actual decomposing bodies.
Nuwan: The other problem that we faced was we don't know the scientific basis of how these dogs detect these bodies, what kind of chemicals they detect. What are the specific chemicals that are unique to human decomposition compared to animal decomposition?
Deboki: Like Nuwan said, they don’t know exactly how, but cadaver dogs can distinguish between, say, a deer that’s decomposing in the woods and a human decomposing in the woods.
Nuwan: Our ultimate goal is to, if we can find these compounds that are human-specific, develop instrumentation to find those human-specific compounds so that we can find bodies even without using dogs.
Deboki: So Nuwan and his colleagues are working to identify human-specific compounds at different stages of decomposition so that one day they can essentially create a hand-held cadaver dog.
And, just to clarify, there are other researchers at different body farms who are also focused on detecting volatile organic compounds at different stages of decay. But Nuwan is really focused on optimizing the methods used to detect these compounds because some of them—due to their structure or charge—stick to the lab equipment or even break down in the process. Better methods means a more accurate and complete picture.
Sam: Which, I mean, of course you want.
Sam: So while Nuwan got into body farm research by first working in forensic paint analysis, what Deboki and I learned while talking with other people who work at body farms is that there are many different avenues that could lead you there. For Melissa Connor, it was archaeology.
Melissa Connor: I started out in archeology in college and probably exhumed my first human skeleton about age 19.
Sam: I don’t think if I could have dug up a human skeleton at 19, but it obviously did not deter Melissa, because today she’s a professor of forensic anthropology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado, and she’s the director of their Forensic Investigation Research Station. At the start of her career, Melissa was working with the National Park Service exhuming remains at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. And it was there that she met an anthropologist who worked with Physicians for Human Rights—a US-based nonprofit that uses science to document and advocate against mass atrocities and severe human rights violations around the world.
Deboki: Physicians for Human Rights had a contract from the United Nations to go to Croatia and evaluate the presence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. This was in 1993, during the Croatian War, when the Government of Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Melissa went to Croatia and then, a couple years later, again with the Physicians for Human Rights, landed in Rwanda to investigate a reported church massacre. This was during the Rwandan Civil War.
Melissa: So what we were brought in to do was exhume the remains. They brought in pathologists, additional forensic anthropologists to do postmortem exams, to look at the demography of the grave because that speaks to which crime. If you're looking at war crimes there are specific populations for which it is a war crime—children, people in hospitals. If you're looking for the crime of genocide, then you're looking for a demographic in the grave that mirrors a specific population. In other words, that there is an intent to kill that group of people.
There are war crimes that are specific to killing adult males who are part of the service, killing prisoners of war for example. Like you do in any forensic case, you’re aware of the potential charges and you're looking at the identification of the individuals and cause and manner of death. And then you can compare the two to see if in fact a crime has been committed. There are mass graves right now all over the world because of COVID 19. That's not a war crime, crime against humanity or a genocide. And there are mass graves for other reasons as well. So who is to say until you actually do the investigation.
Sam: Melissa told us that at Colorado Mesa University, in addition to research, there’s a strong focus on education, and not just for graduate students.
Melissa: We work with biology students, pre-med students, criminal justice students, people who want to go into mortuary sciences, people who want to go into the funerary positions.
For police officers, for funeral directors, for coroner’s deputies to be able to go on a scene and feel competent in handling that body—coroner’s deputies are often doing that right in front of the family—and to have learned how to do it in a respectful and competent manner, just gives them a leg up on the job and a confidence that they wouldn't otherwise have.
Sam: It was actually a group of undergrads working at Colorado Mesa’s body farm who noticed something strange on one of the corpses.
Margot: They had noticed on some of the older cadavers that had been placed very early on, there was kind of a black crust, like hard, dry crust that had started to grow on the skin—remaining skin that was on some of these very desiccated cadavers. And they were curious whether or not it was fungal-based or if it was something else. So they presented that question to me in the lab one day and I said, ‘I don't know, bring some, bring in some samples and we'll see what we can see.’
Deboki: That’s Margot Becktell, a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa who typically focuses on plant diseases and fungal biology. Investigating the growth of a potential fungus on human cadavers was not something she ever anticipated doing, but now she was curious too.
Margot: So they brought in some samples and we plated them out and I actually expected to find just so many things that we wouldn't be able to work out what was there. But only a few things grew and I thought, okay, well, that's interesting.
So I took some more samples and plated them out and every time I took samples, we consistently got just three fungi that would dominate the cultures each time.
Deboki: So Margot, some of her colleagues, and a few students set out to identify those fungi, both by appearance and through DNA sequencing.
There’s a paper coming out soon with their results, but Margot says that’s just a start. To say that these 3 fungi in particular are important or do something specific to a body during late-stage decomposition, they need more data. They want to know if it’s specific to the Colorado Mesa body farm or if it’s something that happens during late stage decomposition in a bunch of environments.
Margot: Here, in Grand Junction, it's super dry, super arid… so we have these desiccated cadavers that start to develop this kind of black crust. This is new, as far as I know, nobody has reported on fungi that are involved in late stage decomposition.
Sam: At Colorado Mesa, like Margot mentioned, it’s super dry. It’s also really high in altitude and has long freezing periods and snow each year, which means the donors…last.
Melissa: The person who has been outside in our facility the longest was placed in January, 2014. He still has significant tissue on him. This is something you don't always see in the facilities in the Eastern Woodlands where there's a great deal more humidity.
The insects' entomological activity can consume it or remove it. Whereas for us, it gets to a point where the insects, certainly the blowfly larva, cannot consume this very leathery tissue and it takes beetles significantly longer. So we're looking at different long term decomposition variables.
Deboki: Another variable that Melissa mentioned, that I didn’t immediately think of, is animal scavengers. They, too, can affect how tissue decomposes. Plus they can disperse human remains.
Alex Smith: Basically with scavengers overall, they can have a huge impact on an investigation, on just overall what happens to a body. They come in, they consume a bunch of tissue that could be exactly where the information you needed was, they accelerate the decomposition process in that part of the body. They can totally destroy a body, mess with the scene. They can do a lot of things that cause a lot of problems.
Deboki: That’s Alex Smith, the lab manager of the Forensic Investigation Research Station at Colorado Mesa. And at the facility, he’s come across some interesting scavengers.
Alex: Cats are not typically thought of as scavengers—felids overall tend to prefer to hunt—but with feral cats, there's not much out here. So that's probably part of the reason why they were coming to us. One of the interesting things with the feral cats is they're just as picky as your typical house cat, it seems, at least the ones that we saw here. So one of them came in and we saw it on every single game camera in our entire facility.
Sam: Alex told us he saw it more or less shop around the entire facility, scavenging just one body for a couple of weeks before leaving. And then the same thing happened with the second feral cat that came in.
Deboki: I have a cat, and I don’t know if I would be insulted or relieved by him potentially ignoring my corpse.
Sam: Yeah I only have dogs and they’re very picky… I don’t know if they’d be interested. Alex told us that scavenging behaviors intrigue him because of the disruptive element to them.
Alex: So you've got kinda your normal decomposition trajectory and yeah, that's important, it’s significant, it's interesting. It provides a lot of information, but then scavengers come in and just kinda flip the table. They mess everything up. And it's interesting to see what they're doing that's causing all of that disruption and then also what we can figure out from that—like how can we use that information?
Deboki: So now you might be wondering about scavengers at other facilities. We asked a couple of researchers at Western Carolina University’s body farm, which has a very different environment from Grand Junction, Colorado. It’s a temperate rainforest nowhere near as high above sea level.
Nick Passalacqua: Our primary scavengers here are possums and vultures.
Becca George: We have quite an active mouse family as well that draws in owls.
Deboki: You just heard Nick Passalacqua and Becca George. Nick is the director of the forensic anthropology program and forensic anthropology facility director, and Becca is the forensic anthropology facilities curator.
Becca: We also have a lot of deer out at the facility, but because it's fenced in, they don't get in. Probably everybody has seen that famous Texas state picture with a deer munching on a rib like it got caught in the act, so we're not gonna have any of that.
Sam: Ok, so, this picture. In 2015, a camera trap captured images of a deer with a human rib sticking out of its mouth. You can definitely find it online a bunch of places if you’re curious. And, I have to be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to tell if the rib came from a human or another larger animal, but it did in fact come from a human who was a donor in a body farm in Texas. And so at this body farm they would typically place a cage around the bodies because there are a lot of scavengers in the area. But then they decided to see how scavengers might impact decomposition because, like we’ve already talked about, that can massively change the profile of how a body breaks down. In a real case you could get deer that disturb the body or even munch on a human rib.
Deboki: So yeah, scavengers, they are a big, important piece of the puzzle when considering what happens to a person.
Alright, Sam if you’re cool with it I want to change gears a bit. We’ve talked a lot about the different types of research and data collected at a body farm and the importance of doing that data collection. So now let’s get into some of the taboos and misconceptions around these facilities.
Sam: Yeah, that’s really important stuff. I’m definitely game to switch gears.
Deboki: Ok, so to start, when we chatted with Becca she told us that she’ll sometimes get emails accusing the body farm of being some disreputable, sketchy site. These are research facilities at accredited institutions with the bodies of donors—meaning they or their families decided that they would donate their bodies to this exact facility. Nick also told us that he gets some weird inquiries from people who see it as some sort of tourism situation.
Nick: It's not uncommon for us to get emails that are like, ‘it’s my mom's birthday's next week. Can she come visit your facility?’ And it's like, no, this is an active research facility, it’s a biohazardous lab, even though it's outside, it's not a tourist attraction.
I think people really expect it to just be like this really smelly, gross environment to walk into. And our facility in particular, but I think all the facilities are very similar in that, we're in a relatively isolated area. It's relatively quiet here. It's nice and peaceful. It's not unlike a cemetery in that, you know, it's kind of a place of resting, people decomposing, people being treated with respect after they die.
These people are here because they wanted to be here. They gave an anatomical gift just like you can donate your body to a med school for a dissection, you can donate your body similarly to us for decomposition and study. These people are here because they want to be here and they want to give back to science and they want to give back to the community after death.
Sam: Death is definitely something that I mostly find scary and depressing, so the idea that you kind of live on through these facilities, where people study your body and then have your bones preserved to educate students … it just seems like a really positive thing.
Deboki: Totally. I mean I come from a culture where bodies are typically cremated, and I think that suits my own personal image of death or whatever if that makes sense. But I also like the idea that if my body were to stick around for whatever reason, that it would be for the sake of someone else’s research.
Sam: So now, sorry Deboki, but I’m going to go in a slightly more depressing direction for a minute, but I promise things will end on a hopeful note.
Deboki: Ok. I am fine with that, but I am also really counting on that hopeful ending.
Sam: Great. I want to talk a bit about ethics when it comes to these facilities and biological anthropology in general. Here’s Nick.
Nick: I don't know if you've been following some of the kind of greater discussions that have been happening around biological anthropology and the collection and curation of human remains. A lot of this came from this scandal with some victims from the MOVE bombing.
Sam: So in 1985, the Philadelphia city government bombed a home that housed a Black liberation group name MOVE. And there’s actually an excellent Vox article about this if you want to learn more about the event itself. I left a link in the episode description.
So this bombing killed 11 people, including five children. And some of the remains were given to a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist and ultimately ended up in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. And not with the family or families of the deceased. So in April, 2021, this information became more publicly known, receiving a lot of nationwide coverage.
Nick: That really kind of spurred this whole conversation about why do some people have remains that don't belong to them? What should we be doing with these remains that people have that might not have been specifically donated for teaching or research or whatever? The museums in the United States like the Smithsonian, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, they have large human skeletal collections that were generated in the early 1900s. And they were generated from unclaimed bodies. So basically if somebody doesn't pick up their loved one's body within a couple days, an anatomist at the time would take that body, they might use it for a dissection, then they're gonna process all the solf tissue off and keep the skeleton. And so thousands of bodies throughout the United States were obtained this way.
So there's this ongoing discussion of what should happen with these remains. Are these remains ethical to have? If they are, why? And if they're not, why not? What should we do with these remains? Should people still be able to study them? Should they be repatriated back to the next of kin? Should they all just be buried and commemorated in some way? What should be done?
And so this is kind of an emerging conversation, which is largely a conversation within biological anthropology. And so what I would say is one of the benefits of a facility like ours, like the one at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Texas State, Colorado Mesa, is that the skeletons that we have in our collection are specifically donated to us for the purpose of teaching and research.
Becca: It's just more kind of thinking about this shift away from the idea of ownership of someone else's skeletal remains. So previous conversations in the past—‘like, well, I own these skeletal remains.’ No, you don't, you can't own a person, that is illegal.
It's more this idea of protecting the donors that we have. We vet every research request that comes in, whether it's internal, external, whatever it might be. You know, we have to ensure that we are in fact talking with the proper next of kin because ultimately these donors are in our care and we are protective of them as a result of that. So I think that's something to always keep in mind with the modern skeletal collections that we have today.
Nick: We're really here to serve our community by offering a green or sustainable alternative form of burial. We're here to serve our community of forensic anthropology by producing students that are educated in taphonomy, skeletal biology, human osteology. We're here to serve our community of scientists by producing research and by having data available to add to the scholarly record. And we're here to serve humanity just by being good people, right? To be treating people the way they want to be treated and to be offering people a service if they're so interested.
Deboki: So anthropological research facilities—body farms—super fascinating and super important. Sam and I hope you learned something new.
Sam: And before we go… don’t think we forgot. It’s time for Tiny Show and Tell. You’ll notice we’ve updated the name which is very exciting and we want to thank listener Brandon Villalta for the suggestion. Deboki, I think you went first last time so I feel like it's only fair if I go first this time.
Deboki: Yes, it is only fair if you go first.
Sam: Okay, great. Today I'm going to talk about… this is ridiculous because again it has to do with cannibalism. I'm really on a tear with this. So this time it's about sexual cannibalism which is when a animal consumes its mate either leading up to, just before, during, or after copulation. Real good stuff. People usually think of sexual cannibalism with regard to praying mantises. So this is like a pretty well known thing where typically the female praying mantis will bite the head off of her mate during mating.
This is also something that happens in a lot of other species, including a bunch of spider species. Now for the first time, researchers have actually seen how this one species of spider, the orb weaving spider, get away from their female before getting cannibalized. They have this crazy catapulting motion that they do. They get in there and then real quick, they're like see you later and they catapult away so that the female can't kill them post copulation. They move so quickly that it would be like me in one second, jumping the length of five football fields. It's wildly fast, it's wildly fast. And there's a very, very cool video of this. If this is something that you think is interesting, definitely go look it up.
Deboki: That's amazing. Okay, I know the thing about praying mantises, but do we know why animals, is there some particular reason for sexual cannibalism to exist?
Sam: So these researchers think that if the male is not good at catapulting, getting away from the female, then they might get rid of his sperm. There are ways that they can actually get rid of the sperm.
Deboki: This is like part of the audition.
Sam: Yes, it's an audition to be their mate. That they're kind of trying to still figure out for sure, but it seems like that's like a test for them. Can they catapult away because these males will keep going back to females multiple times after catapulting, catapulting, catapulting, and they'll just keep going back. And then eventually the female sometimes is like, okay, cool. You proved that you can do this. That's not a hundred percent clear at this point if that's actually what's going on, but that's sort of what they're hypothesizing.
Deboki: Okay, so that was amazing. I am not coming to you with like remarkable feats of athletic prowess for the sake of escaping sexual cannibals. I guess I am actually coming with some athletic prowess because I'm going to be talking about hockey players today.
This is an article from March that was in FiveThirtyEight titled, “How colorblind NHL players see the game.” It was written by Marisa Ingemi. It is as the title suggests about how colorblind NHL players see the game. I just really, really have been enjoying thinking about this article. In it she talks to players who have, I think all the players talk in the article have red, green colorblindness. There's some stuff in there about how that kind of colorblindness happens.
Color is one of those fundamental things where it's very easy to be like, how do you see this color? How do I see this color? It's cool to kind of go through how the choices that are made in terms of uniforms. This is both cool, but also it's an important thing. It impacts how people are able to in this case do their job. I just really enjoyed that. One of my goals last year was to become a person who watches sports and one of my attempts to do that was to watch hockey and it didn't stick because it was very chaotic, but I still like learning how people process that chaos because yeah, it's a lot.
Sam: A scientific approach to sports.
Deboki: Yes, exactly.
Sam: Amazing. Amazing. Well, thank you. That's really cool. I'm definitely going to read that article because I think it is one of those things where we have this sort of generalized understanding of this is that color and this is this color, but we all see things a little bit differently. If someone is red, green color blind, then what does that mean for creating uniforms that they're able to sort of distinguish between the teams or things like that. There's some really important stuff in there.
Deboki: Definitely. There's a lot in there about accessibility because I think there's a difference between how the NHL deals with this versus junior leagues where I think the regulations around that kind of color are not as thought out maybe in the same way. I think typically in the NHL it's there's one team that will be wearing a light colored shirt and another team will be wearing a dark color shirt. And so for players who are colorblind, that is a helpful way to distinguish between their teammates and the other teammates, but that's not necessarily true for all these other leagues. It's a real part of how people are playing this game.
Sam: Yeah. Thanks for, I don't know if this tiny show and telling doesn't really make sense, but yeah, thanks for your tiny show and tell.
Deboki: Yeah, my tiny showing and telling.
Sam: Yes, there you go.
Deboki: So as always, links to the show and tell stories are in the episode description and thank you again Brandon for the much improved name.
Sam: Yes, much improved. Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. I’m your exec producer and host, and I’m joined by my co-host Deboki Chakravarti.
Deboki: This week’s script was written by Sam, edited by me and by Rubén Rodríguez Pérez, and fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and our artwork was created by Derek Bressler.
Sam: We talked to so many researchers for this episode and we’re incredibly grateful. So Margot Becktell, Melissa Connor, Becca George, Nick Passalacqua, Nuwan Perera, and Alex Smith—thank you all so, so much for your time.
Deboki: As always, if there are some tiny things that you think matter and that you’d love us to explore in an episode, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on twitter at okidoki_boki
Sam: And you can find me on twitter at samjscience. We’ll see you next time.