Forensic scientists are often tasked with the unenviable job of trying to determine a cause of death and associated timeline using human remains discovered in outdoor environments, which means developing a thorough understanding of both human decomposition and the behavior of scavenger animals that feed off of dead things in the forest.
Foxes, turkey vultures, raccoons, coyotes, and any number of other carnivores and omnivores can be expected to grab mouthfuls of a carcass—be it human or otherwise—accelerating the decomposition process by removing flesh that would otherwise degrade more slowly. In order to effectively assess the important factors leading up to a human dead body being found in the woods of the United States, forensic professionals must consider not only the decomposition process, but the types of animals likely to have grazed off of the deceased prior to the body’s discovery.
Because of this important need, entire facilities exist solely to study the way in which people’s remains degrade in the wilderness absent human intervention. One such “body farm” can be found in San Marcos, Texas at the 26-acre Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF). The FARF is a subsidiary of Texas State University, and provides forensic anthropology students, researchers, and law enforcement agencies with a controlled outdoor environment in which to conduct experiments on human bodies donated to science.
One such experiment conducted at the FARF recently aimed to accurately measure human decomposition and scavenger behavior. All the usual suspects made an appearance, but as researchers pored over the footage, they stumbled across a surprise diner: a young white-tailed deer.
The deer can clearly be seen standing near the human skeleton (which was about all that remained at that point), munching down on a rib bone that hung out of its mouth like a cigar. Less than two weeks later, another deer (or potentially the first one returning for seconds) showed up in the film to grab another bite. Their film provides the first known evidence of white-tailed deer scavenging a human carcass, and they published those findings in a peer-reviewed paper that appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
This isn’t the first time scientists have discovered deer violating their usually vegetarian lifestyles. A YouTube video posted in April of 2014 by Kevin Dunn clearly shows a young deer eating a fish he tossed to it, for instance. Scientists believe these deer, although normally averse to eating meat, may occasionally seek a fleshy meal to get important minerals into their diets—such as phosphorus, salt, and calcium—particularly during winter months when other sources of these nutrients can be scarce.
By identifying the way in which white-tailed deer might munch on human bones, scientists can better assist law enforcement in determining injuries that may have been sustained prior to death, and those that have appeared in the time since—an important distinction when they only have bones to work with. Also, by identifying the types of damage deer can inflict on human remains, forensic professionals can also make better assessments about what part of the world a body may have spent time in and how long it’s been dead.
According to these findings, white-tailed deer tend to prefer the dry bones of long-dead animals, and they do the most damage to the ends of the bones they gnaw on, leaving behind a “stripped, forked pattern in the bone,” from the zigzag motions of their jaws. In contrast, carnivores and other meat-eating scavengers tend to leave punctures and pits in the bone as they eat.
So let that be a lesson to deer hunters out there: You may plan on putting dinner on the table with that rifle, but if you’re not careful climbing down from your tree stand, you may well find yourself on Bambi’s menu instead.
Images courtesy of the Journal of Forensic Science