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Scientist Explains Rare 'Zombie Deer' Phenomenon.

A recent paper had a community of scientists buzzing after a single white-tailed deer was photographed gnawing on the ribcage of human skeletal remains "like a cigar." While perhaps disturbing to some who may be wondering if "zombie deer" are turning on us, the finding could prove valuable to forensic anthropologists investigating murders and missing persons.

The paper - titled "White-tailed Deer as a Taphonomic Agent" and published May 2 in the "Journal of Forensic Sciences" - documented the first known observation of white-tailed deer nibbling on a single human rib. The phenomenon was observed by a team at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University (FACTS) on its 26-acre ( Freeman Ranch body farm. What's a body farm, you ask? Great question. Body farms are anthropological research facilities where forensic scientists study the decomposition process of the human body to better help law enforcement solve crimes.

Read: ( Human Bone Smuggling Reports: Suspects Arrested In Connection To Ring, 365 Bones Recovered

What makes this particular observation special? This type of osteophagia (animals, mostly herbivores, consuming or chewing on bones) has never before been reported in scientific literature. However, the study's authors wrote that this behavior "during the winter season is consistent with previously documented behavior of deer gnawing on nonhuman bone, possibly to obtain minerals absent in their diet."

One of the study's authors, Lauren A. Meckel, chatted with International Business Times about the significance of the finding to forensic sciences, the process by which this research is conducted at FACTS' research facility and how this type of forensic anthropology helps law enforcement crack cases.

How did you happen to stumble upon this deer going rogue on human remains? Is this uncommon?

At FACTS, people can donate their bodies to science, and if they donate to us, we study the process of decomposition to help law enforcement identify individuals who have died in this region of Texas. That helps us with estimating time since death. When that person is decomposed and is now a skeleton, we collect their bones and bring them back to our collection lab where they are used for developing methods for identification - so looking at how tall that person was, how old they were, what their ancestry was and whether they would have identified as male or female.

Usually, when somebody donates their body, we pick them up and bring them back to our 26-acre outdoor facility. We lay them with a cage on top of them so they are not scavenged by the animals that we know are scavengers out there - foxes, raccoons and sometimes a coyote. We put a video camera on this particular individual because we wanted to actually see the scavenging occur, so we didn't put a cage on this person.

Why white-tailed deer?

There's a huge population of white-tailed deer in central Texas, and they're always setting off the cameras. Usually, we just see them looking at the bodies or sniffing them and walking away, but they are constantly setting off the motion sensor camera. We've never actually seen them pick up a bone. So when we saw that happen and then we went out and looked at that bone and saw the deer had actually been gnawing on the rib, it was surprising to us because we had never seen that before.

In the literature we read, we found this is quite common in deer with animal bones to obtain minerals that are absent from the environment at the time. This is just the first time we've seen it with human bone because of our unique situation here. There are not many situations where you have human remains lying around with a camera on them. [Laughs]

So how does that process of decomposition work from start to finish?

When someone is interested in donating their body, they fill out our living donor paperwork and they give us a bunch of information about their life history, where they've lived, what type of diseases they've had, surgeries they've had, who their parents were and where they're from. When they die, we pick them up anywhere but a private residence - hospitals, funeral homes, nursing homes - any of those locations within 200 miles of our facility. And then we bring them back and immediately take samples for DNA and photograph them.

Depending on what project they're going to be used for - the most common is called longitudinal decomposition study, and what that means is that we're looking at the decomposition over time - we bring them out to our decomposition facility and we let them decompose naturally. We take photographs and notes every day and look at how the decomposition is progressing. What this does is allows us to correlate weather data with the stages of decomposition that are going on. Using that, we can work backward. If law enforcement comes across a body in a field and they want to know how long ago they died - say they've died in San Antonio - we can say, based on what we about decomposition in this season, this person has been dead for this long.

At what point do scavengers begin to colonize the corpse?

Flies are the first scavengers to come to the body. They start to colonize in the orifices of the body - the eyes, the ears and the mouth - and then they lay eggs and the eggs turn into maggots. Then the body starts to turn darker in color, so it turns into this purple/green/gray color. Bloat starts to happen and the torso starts to extend, the arms and the legs start to bloat. At the same time the insects are consuming the flesh, so the flesh is being broken down. We start to see skeletonization in the face first and then as the maggots start to extend through the body, that tissue also starts to get broken down. When bloat has reached its peak - all of the tissue inside the body, muscle tissue and all starts to turn into gas - and the body can't hold that bloat anymore, it starts to purge. That's when all that liquid starts to come out of other parts of the body and the torso starts to sink in.

After that wet decomposition process, everything starts to dry up. Then we get different types of flies - soldier flies and gnats, and other types of bugs like beetles, spiders - and they start to consume that drying tissue. In Texas, the bodies that we have mostly mummify because we have hot, dry environments. But if we are in a particularly wet season, they will skeletonize.

Aside from bugs - and, of course, deer - what are some of the other scavengers that are feeding on human remains?

We see foxes, raccoons, opossums, mice and a coyote for a bit that would come and try to get to the bodies. Because we put cages on them, it typically keeps them off. But especially vultures. Vultures are the main scavengers, and if we don't put a cage over the body then the vultures will be the first to come to it along with the flies.

This is obviously very graphic work. Do you find that students get queasy around these dead bodies?

Every now and then - very, very rarely - we have a student who is not comfortable. But when our students are applying for this program, they know what they're getting themselves into.

What are some observations you've gathered from your facility that help local law enforcement solve murders?

Understanding how geography and weather relate to decomposition is really important for estimating time since death. That's something that really helps law enforcement with identification and narrowing down a missing persons list.

As forensic anthropologists, we study human osteology or human bone. The things that you do throughout life manipulate how your skeleton functions and what it looks like. What we do after the decomposition process is collect the skeleton and curate it into our skeletal collections, kind of like a skeletal library. Various skeleton markers help us estimate an individual's age, sex, ancestry or stature. If law enforcement brings us a skeleton, we can help them eliminate certain characteristics so they can narrow their missing persons list.

Can you give me an example of a case you've worked on?

We have in the recent past helped law enforcement with the identification of someone who was found in the middle of a field, and they wanted to know if that person matched the profile of someone they were looking for. We were able to tell them it did.

Can you tell me specifically why this observation of white-tailed deer gnawing on a human bone is significant or why it created such a stir?

I personally think that we tend to put ourselves in a different category of life than other animals, but we are humans so we're partial to our own existence. I got a kick out of it when I saw it in the camera, but I honestly didn't realize that people were going to care so much.

People perceive deer as being innocent - like the whole phrase of being "doe-eyed" - that's fair, and I think that should still stand. ( David Brown from the Texas Standard said it's just like them coming up to a salt lick. They're getting minerals that they need in their diet to survive.

So we don't need to worry about populations of deer turning on us as predators?

[ Laughs ] Right. And a lot of people have said things about deer eating human flesh, and that's just not what we observed. We simply observed a deer pick up a rib and when we checked it out, it looked like it had been gnawing on it. There are no zombie deer coming after us for hunting them or anything like that.
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Publication:International Business Times - US ed.
Date:May 16, 2017
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