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Triple sorbent traps were used over four bodies for four years at the Body Farm to collect air samples.


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Eight major classes of chemicals were revealed which now contain specific volatile compounds associated with burial decomposition. Samples were analyzed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry GC-MS , and were collected above and below the body in order to assess any changes in chemical concentration that occurred during migration to the surface.

Of these compounds, 30 were identified as key markers of human decomposition that are detectable at the soil surface by either analytical equipment or human remains detection dogs, including 12 of 72 compounds emitted from bone in the absence of any tissue. Vass believes this is because Americans drink fluorinated water and that it may be possible that, as bodies decompose, fluorine combines with hydrocarbon compounds, generating a distinct detectable compound.


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The VOC database was first intended to identify the odor signature unique to human burial decomposition and to use this information to improve cadaver dog training. Cadaver dogs are believed to be able to find human remains even hundreds of years old and can also differentiate human bones from animal bones, useful information for forensic investigators attempting to determine if a bone in question belonged to a baby or a chicken.

However, cadaver dogs are difficult to train, can be expensive to maintain, and are not always available when needed. Vass believed if he could develop a detector that could mimic what cadaver dogs do so well, the cost to law enforcement could be significantly reduced. Vass said that LABRADOR was constructed with common, off-the-shelf components where possible to minimize costs and has specific sensors designed to detect many of the chemical compounds peculiar to human decomposition.

It is self-contained, portable, and built for field use. A data port allows the operator to download data when desired. Later-arriving species such as the hide beetle and the ham beetle Necrobia rufipes feed on the toughened skin and tendons. They are known as specialist scavengers. They are often present at the same time, and colonise different parts of the body.

Other predatory insects, such as ants, wasps, mites and spiders, also arrive to feast on those insects or their larvae who have reached the body before them. Many factors can affect which insects arrive, when they arrive, and how quickly their offspring grow, including habitat, weather conditions and soil type. Insects do an amazing job of devouring the soft tissue of a corpse.

After approximately 12 months, they will have left little behind. Still, the evidence of their work and lives may be of some use to forensic entomologists. The smell of a decomposing human body has been described as rank and pungent mixed with a tinge of sickening sweetness. Despite its unpleasantness, the odours given off during the decomposition process can be incredibly helpful. And some researchers now claim that decomposing human bodies have a unique smell, which is different to that of other rotting animals. A study aimed to identify the volatile organic compounds released during decomposition.

The researchers studied six human remains and 26 animal remains over a six-month period.

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Making Chemical Scents of Decomposition

Using advanced equipment they were able to identify a total of compounds. Many of the compounds were the same across species. But researchers identified eight compounds ethyl propionate, propyl propionate, propyl butyrate, ethyl pentanoate, pyridine, diethyl disulfide, methyl methylthio ethyl disulfide and 3-methylthiopropanol that were specific to human and pig remains.

The odour of death

They were also able to distinguish between the human and pig remains due to the presence of five esters 3-methylbutyl pentanoate, 3-methylbutyl 3-methylbutyrate, 3-methylbutyl 2-methylbutyrate, butyl pentanoate and propyl hexanoate. Interestingly, these five esters produced via the degrading of fat tissues, muscles and carbohydrates are also responsible for the strong, intense smells emitted by certain fruits such as raspberries and pineapples.

The smell of human death, it seems, is just a little bit fruity.

Detection Dogs

The findings from the study, while interesting, are limited in some ways. Firstly, the researchers used human body parts, rather than whole bodies. Secondly, the remains were tested in a lab-controlled environment, so they were not exposed to external factors such as light, heat, moisture or insect activity, which may have altered the results. She will investigate the chemical processes that occur on whole human bodies during natural decomposition in an outdoor environment, and use this information to identify an accurate biochemical signature. Accurate recordings of these different chemical markers may be put to a number of different uses.

Identifying the chemical signature of death is important work, but forensic chemists may also be able to help investigators determine the cause of death. Using a variety of high-performance machines, they assist in the identification of specific substances and materials found in or on the body or at a crime scene, such as drugs, alcohol or a fire accelerant such as petrol or kerosene.

This information can provide direction for avenues of investigation, or confirm or reject the suspicions of investigators in relation to a found material. Forensic chemists will also be looking closely at how textile and fibre degradation occurs in Australian conditions. They will be studying the material itself, rather than its impact on the body or skeleton. As much as we might like to ignore it, death, and what happens afterwards, are undeniable facts of life. All living things die, so it makes sense, as unpleasant as it may be, to try and better understand the various processes involved.

The data collected from the AFTER facility will be able to provide validated scientific methods and results that can be used by police and forensic investigators in their work. Because each death scene is unique—both in terms of the body including its size, age and trauma suffered and the circumstances it is placed in such as the environment, weather, clothing and position —the science is not infallible.

However, by improving our knowledge of the human decomposition process, and how it is affected by and affects the flora and fauna around it, we may be able to help answer questions that can then benefit the living.


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Deadly secrets—the science of decomposition Expert reviewers. A scientist sampling in the field. Used with permission. Taphonomy: not for the squeamish … Taphonomy is the study of organic remains from the time of death to the time of discovery. An archaeologist sampling remains from a mass grave. A scientist analysing soil samples. Forensic entomology Forensic entomologists study insect and other arthropod biology to aid legal investigations, often into criminal offences.

A flesh fly feeding on decaying flesh. There are several beetle species that live off the dead, including the rove beetle pictured. Professor Shari Forbes assessing samples in the lab. Two of the 11 canines are cadaver dogs.

Also known as human remains detection dogs, they have been trained to smell death. Specifically, the dogs are trained to smell decomposition, which means they can locate body parts, tissue, blood and bone.

Death, Decomposition, and Detector Dogs: From Science to Scene - CRC Press Book

In October , a jury in Illinois convicted Aurelio Montano, 58, of the first-degree murder of his wife, despite the lack of a body, due in part to evidence provided by cadaver dogs who detected the scent of human remains on a rug. The exact numbers of cadaver dogs are hard to come by, but Marcia Koenig, one of the founding members of the American Rescue Dog Association, estimates that the United States has more than volunteer-led canine search teams, although there are no figures for law enforcement-owned cadaver dogs. For these dogs, finding bodies is not an innate ability but the result of intensive, dedicated training paired with their natural, instinctive abilities: high stamina, focus, obedience and, specifically, the prowess of their noses.

Most canines take between 18 months and two years to become fully fledged cadaver dogs. While the majority are Labrador retrievers or German shepherds, for most handlers the breed of dog is far less important than finding a dog who has a good hunt drive, strong nerves and confidence. But despite their formidable noses, these dogs still need assistance, direction and training to reach their full potential. Founded in and part of the University of Pennsylvania, the training centre and research program is dedicated to helping advance the success of working dogs.

Canines work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. When puppies are about eight weeks old, they begin to learn the broad range of skills necessary for a successful working dog. The main room of the center is part training hub, part office. The few desks are outnumbered by the dog-sized obstacle course. Ladders and balance beams crisscross the room, and ramps and walkways vary in material and texture: metal, wood and what looks like sandpaper.

Tin cans dangle from strings and bright yellow plastic tube tunnels, the type kids play in, snake around the place. Notes on whiteboards on the walls list the dogs and their proficiency in crucial basic skills: obedience, agility, search, direction and control. Every few minutes, the noise of wailing sirens drowns out the barking. Its purpose is to familiarize the dogs with the noises they will be encountering in the line of duty.