GAINESVILLE --- University of Florida scientists are studying a real-life invasion of the body snatchers in hopes of finding new ways to solve the mysteries of old murders or accidental deaths.
Police and forensic anthropologists often are frustrated by the way Florida's wildlife eats and scatters human remains, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the person was a victim of an accident or foul play, or even where the death occurred.
So UF anthropologists are using the vast Austin Cary Forest near Gainesville as a natural laboratory and the bodies of pigs as substitute victims to see how the call of the wild and nature's forces can alter the remains of a human being.
"In many way, we're blessed by our environment and cursed by it," said Tony Falsetti, a UF forensic anthropologist and director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory on campus. "Everybody has different stories about buzzards and dead bodies, and we have a lot of wildlife in Florida, which will carry off remains. There are panthers, several kinds of foxes, buzzards and turtles, which are very effective at moving things."
By determining what happens naturally to a body, Falsetti said he hopes to be able to tell medical examiners, law enforcement and others when something is not right.
"People do wander away and die naturally, but if somebody has revisited a scene, it may show that they tried to hide the body, which addresses the issue of intent," said Falsetti, who directed the study and presented some of the findings at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in March.
Compounding a detective's problems caused by wandering critters are the Sunshine State's muggy climate, sandy soil and rapidly-growing vegetation, said Mike Warren, a UF visiting anthropology professor and one of the project's researchers.
"What happens to a body after death really depends on where that body is," Warren said. "Much depends on the body's location, the climate, moisture, rainfall, the population of scavengers and what insects can be found. The reason we did the study is we need to know what happens in Florida."
Although there has been research elsewhere in the country about how natural forces alter and scatter human skeletons, no studies have been done here, Falsetti said. Because Florida is relatively temperate, grasses grow very quickly, making it difficult to tell from disturbances in the soil that a body is present, he said.
One case Falsetti is researching involves a badly burned body found chained to a tree, surrounded by burned insects. "Because we know that insects come to a body after death, there's something about the time frame, the sequence of events, that will help law enforcement in terms of charging an individual," he said. "Not only did the perpetrator kill the person, but they returned later to try to alter the scene."
While a forensic botanist's search for clues might zero in on a new clump of bushes or trees that could be fertilized by a human body, a forensic anthropologist's work is more difficult because depressions in the ground that might indicate the presence of a buried body aren't as easy to see in places with sandy soil such as Florida, Falsetti said. For that reason, remote sensing devices are used increasingly, he said.
One of the study's main findings so far is that searches for skeletons usually need to be extended over a much greater area than previously believed, Falsetti said.
"This kind of work is important because we do get a number of calls about informants who say they didn't do it, but 'know' or 'heard' where a body is located," he said. "With a little background research, we might be able to help recover the body."
Wayne McIntire, detective sergeant in charge of the Gainesville Police forensic crime unit, said the research will be useful to law enforcement.
"Anytime you have anything that affects the integrity of the scene, and especially when you have a body that's been in the wild for awhile, you have many varmints come up and drag these bones away," he said. "Even birds of prey have been known to carry body parts away from a scene."
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