Smell That? It’s Forensic Entomology At The Body Farm

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Science Friday airs weekly on WSQX Fridays 2-4pm


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Science Friday offers educational resources for your science classroom.   The following is sample of a lesson plan for 6-12th grade students. Find more information here. 

WARNING Graphic Content: The videos and images below contain graphic documentation of  real life, rotting human and animal corpses that may be disturbing to a younger audience.

A forensic scientist enters a crime scene and sees some flies, maggots, and a few beetles on and around a dead body. She immediately begins collecting them. Why? Because these insects can help investigators solve crimes!

The type and ages of insects found at a crime scene can help investigators determine how long a body has been lying there, for instance, and if the victim had taken any drugs, medications, or poison before death.

Our understanding of the clues that insects can provide about a crime scene comes from research done at facilities called body farms. At these facilities, forensic scientists study how bodies decompose, and forensic entomologists study the insects that contribute to that decomposition.

In this activity, you will create your own mini-body farm to attract insects to a “corpse” (in this case, a piece of meat). Over the course of a week, you will observe the number and types of insects that arrive at your corpse. You’ll use that data to explore how crime scene conditions affect the decomposition of a corpse.

How do you use insects to solve crimes?

Anne Perez is a forensic entomologist and a lecturer at Ohio University, and she has intimate experience studying what insects can tell us about a dead body. In the following interview with Science Friday, Perez describes how forensic entomologists use insects to help them solve crimes. Listen to the audio clip below.

What is a body farm?

Body farms are research facilities where scientists study the decomposition of human remains in different types of settings. There are about a half-dozen in the United States and a few in Australia, with more planned in other countries.

One challenge to setting up a body farm is finding secluded fields away from densely populated areas so that the bodies won’t be disturbed. Another challenge is where to obtain corpses. While most body farms rely on human remains that have been legally donated, many use pigs because of their similarity in size and composition to humans.

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