Person doing forensic investigation

How do we investigate a death scene to bring criminals to justice? By Katherine Brown

  • 18 September 2019
  • 3 min read

This is the aim of forensic taphonomy research (the study of how organisms decay and become fossilised). Despite public perception that forensic research is exciting and well-funded, and ‘surely we must know the answer to that?’, most research is focussed around fingerprints and DNA. The Themes Research and Innovation Fund (TRIF) has funded a project which is a world’s first: it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to forensic taphonomy research, in both land and aquatic scenarios.
The University of Portsmouth has a formal agreement with a local military base, which enables us to observe animal decomposition undisturbed and secure, on both land and in man-made ponds.

Creating a multidisciplinary timeline

Work on the project started in June.  Weather data, photographs, insects, bacteria, soil, water and ambient volatile organic compounds have been collected daily both here and at the University of Derby. Each specialist will be processing their data to produce a map of decomposition, with the aim of correlating changes. Will the arrival of a specific insect result in a significant change in the microbiome, which can be detected in the volatiles obtained? A multidisciplinary timeline of decomposition will be the first in the world.
Trying to get our research plans and sampling protocols in order, across two sites and four disciplines: entomology, anthropology, microbiology and chemistry, and to conduct the work simultaneously, has been like herding cats with opposable thumbs!

The future of taphonomy research

The UK is behind the rest of the world in lacking in a human taphonomy facility. Demonstrating the potential of taphonomy research using this multidisciplinary approach, this data will provide us with a gateway and significantly more support for a larger, world-leading, aquatic decomposition facility in the UK.
In the meantime, this TRIF project has already inspired an upscaled, multidisciplinary, international collaboration, looking at forensic taphonomy at other sites across Europe. The future of forensic taphonomy is looking bright…or dark!


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