Texas vulture study updates forensics

For more than five weeks, a woman’s body lay undisturbed in a secluded Texas field. Then a frenzied flock of vultures descended on the corpse and reduced it to a skeleton within hours. But this was not a crime scene lost to nature. It was an important scientific experiment into the way human bodies decompose, and the findings are upending assumptions about decay that have been the basis of homicide cases for decades.

Experienced investigators would normally have interpreted the absence of flesh and the condition of the bones as evidence that the woman had been dead for six months, possibly even a year or more. Now a study of vultures at Texas State University is calling into question many of the benchmarks detectives have long relied on…

The vulture study, conducted on 26 acres near the south-central Texas campus, stemmed from previous studies that used dead pigs, which decompose much like humans. Scientists set up a motion-sensing camera that captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman’s body, breaking some of her ribs, which investigators could also misinterpret as trauma suffered during a beating…

The forensic center opened in 2008, as did a similar facility at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, making Texas home to two of the nation’s five “body farms.”

At the farms, forensic pathologists observe the decomposition process in natural surroundings to see how corpses react to sun and shade, whether they decay differently on the surface or below ground and what sort of creatures — from large to microscopic — are involved.

Only in recent years has academic literature tried to establish formulas for death time based on stages of decomposition and environmental factors such as temperature conditions where the body was found.

The vulture research has drawn interest from homicide investigators, including Pam McInnis, president of the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists and director of the Pasadena Police Crime Lab in suburban Houston. She said the ability to account for vultures would “significantly” help investigators who already use insects and their life cycles to estimate time of death…

Sgt. Jim Huggins, a recently retired Texas Department of Public Safety criminal investigator who now teaches forensic science at Baylor University, said vultures were always something of a mystery for investigators…

Previous research on scavenged remains focused on carnivores such as coyotes or rodents.

“This is, as far as I’m concerned, it’s cutting edge,” he said. “No one has ever sat down and put a pencil down and attempted this before. … This is going to, I think, change some minds about scavengers.”

RTFA for more detail abut folks who donated their bodies for these studies, details about what’s being learned, the thoughtfulness of folks who wanted to contribute just a bit more to society.

Vultures are the best sign of spring in our little community along the Santa Fe River bosque.

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