6 Mind-Blowing Forensic Advancements

Forensic AdvancementsThe forensic community works tirelessly to improve techniques to aid law enforcement, and much of this work is done at body farms across the country. The Texas body farm has conducted some amazing work as of late. I’ve complied my top six forensic advancements, which I think you’ll find fascinating.

Teeth Show Time of Death

When no clues exist to identify a corpse, investigators have a serious problem. The determination of age and sex of the body can be crucial to limit the search for individuals that could possibly match missing persons records. Today, gender can be determined through DNA, as well as the skeleton itself, but believe it or not, it’s not as accurate as testing done on teeth. Age estimation in children and adolescents often depends on radiological examination of skeletal and dental development. In adults, however, age estimation is much less accurate.

Enter: aspartic acid racemization and radiocarbon dating.

At the sprawling 26-acre Freeman Ranch in Texas, over 50 human corpses reside at the body farm. Many of which are checked via drone. Scientists examined 44 teeth from 41 individuals using aspartic acid racemization analysis of tooth crown dentin and radiocarbon dating of enamel. Of those, ten were split and subjected to both radiocarbon and racemization analysis. Combined analysis showed that the two methods combined worked better than relying on one or the other.

Radiocarbon Dating, a forensic tool also done on eyes, is an accurate way to determine environment, date of birth, age of deceased, nutrition, diet, and even date of death. I’ve written about Radiocarbon Dating before (see link above). Briefly, similar to counting rings on a tree to determine its age, same applies to the eyes and teeth. Only with teeth researchers aren’t looking for crystallins.

Twice a year each permanent tooth is anchored to the gums by tiny, distinct fibers. A bright line is laid in the spring or summer, depending on where you live, and a dark line in the fall or winter. The number of bands, as well as the color and width of the outermost ring, help scientists estimate the deceased’s age at death and also narrows the TOD (time of death) window.

Plants and Trees Love Dead Bodies

Human remains act like any other type of fertilizer, producing nitrogen that leeches into the soil. and provides nutrients to plant-life. Trees and plants thrive on this added nutrient, growing taller, fuller, and greener than those not living near the dead. By studying their size compared to other plant-life in the area, experts can determine where and when bodies were buried.

Insects, Rats, and Squirrels Help Determine Date of Death6 Mind-Blowing Forensic Advancements

I’ve written about entomology before, but did you know scavengers — like rats and squirrels, for example — prefer different types of human bones? It’s true. Rats like their bones greasy, and tend to chew on the ends in order to gain access to the marrow. Scientists can then look for these signs to determine how long the body has been in its earthly grave.

Conversely, squirrels prefer drier, more brittle bones that have been fully exposed to the elements. They use the calcium in bone to aid in the breeding of strong litters. By examining the different bite marks and narrowing when the bites occurred and by whom, forensic anthropologists are then able to determine if the body was skeletonized while fully exposed to the elements = squirrel activity. Or if buried in a shallow grave with nibbles on the ends of the bones = rats. Also, they can estimate how long the body has been dead and if the body has remained undisturbed.

Quick fun fact: it takes vultures only a few hours to strip a body down to bare bones — a time frame previously estimated to be weeks.

Mosquitos Can Aid Investigators

In bodies that are badly degraded obtaining DNA becomes a chore, and sometimes isn’t possible at all. Researchers at the body farm, however, have a solution. Mosquitos and other biting insects, believe it or not, preserve portions of the DNA in the bodies they feed on. By trapping and dissecting these insects, DNA could be recovered.

How cool is that? It’s also a bit disturbing to think of mosquitos flying around with our DNA inside them. Or worse, when you smack a mosquito and it leaves a trail of blood, someone else’s DNA could be splattered on your palm. Yuck! I swear, the more I learn, the more paranoid I become. I don’t know about you but these things haunt me. LOL #writerslife

Decomposition Follows a Set Process

The body farm discovered a set pattern to decomposition. One week exposed to open air equals two weeks in the water and eight weeks buried underground. The latter refers to murdered victims, not people who’ve been embalmed or mummified. Environment, temperature, clothing, and weather all have to be taken into account as well, but as a baseline this formula aids investigators a great deal.

Drones Help Find Buried Remains

Forensic Advancements

Drones schmones. Check out these puppies.

In bodies not visible to the naked eye, drone flights are part of an ongoing study using near infrared imaging to detect bodies above and below the ground. This technology can also spot locations, where a corpse was previously buried for up to two years after its removal.

“The search for clandestine bodies is a very time-consuming ordeal,” Wescott told the Texas Tribune. “Even then, a lot of times you can walk right by them and not realize that they’re there.”

As corpses decay, they release carbon and nitrogen into the soil, which decreases the amount of light the soil reflects. The influx of chemicals first kills plants, but as it disperses into the soil around the body it morphs into a fertilizer that reflects a ton of light. By using near infrared imaging the drones can detect these reflections. Two extremes show up as black and white on the mostly gray near infrared imagining. Anyone searching for a body doubles their chances of finding it.

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About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud contributor to The Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

26 Comments

  1. This is great info, thanks Sue! I’m saving this for future creepy reference 🙂

  2. Cool stuff, Sue! Still, I can’t help but think “eeww” when it comes to the body farm. Takes a certain kind of person, I think 🙂
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Hello, SummerMy Profile

  3. Wow Sue it seems so many things we never dreamed of are intermingled as in the mosquito info. You publish some fascinating stuff. I had no idea there were “body farms” of this nature. I see some other articles I want to read. 🙂

  4. GREAT article I love reading your stuff but this one tops them. Thank you for sharing the info.

  5. Great post. I watch all the shows on TV that deal with things like this. Forensics is amazing!!! I am hooked on ID right now and binge watch it. My hubby is concerned…LOL
    sherry fundin recently posted…Early Review – The Future Is Now – Fracture Point by Jeff Altabef @JeffAltabef @novelpublicityMy Profile

    • Totally agree about forensics, Sherry. The work they do fascinates me. It’s difficult to look at the world in the same way when you envision what lies beneath the surface.

      Hahaha. #IDAddict here too!

  6. I attended a party on Saturday with a woman who’s daughter is an anthropologist. She works at the Tennessee Body Farm with the authors of the Body Farm books. I immediately thought of you 🙂
    Mae Clair recently posted…Valuable TreasuresMy Profile

  7. I love this stuff and crime writers should do as much research as possible to make their scenes authentic. Even if the reader misses some subtle points, I think writers have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible without slowing down the story.

  8. I wonder if mosquitoes can transfer DNA and therefore change a person. What if a mosquito bit a serial killer and then bit you?
    Heh Heh. Paranoid enough yet? West Nile is nothing compared to what might happen.

  9. You’ve dug up some hot stuff here, Sue. I’ve never heard of racemization before – learn something new every day 🙂 It’s interesting to see what drone technology will contribute to investigations. For years expensive helicopters have been used with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) detecting heat from decomp but that may now be done easier/cheaper/safer with drones. I’ll bet Adam from WritersDectective might know something about this.

    • Oh, I bet you’re right, Garry. I’ll have to ask him. Months ago he wrote a post for me, where he mentioned FLIR. I think. Or did I read it on his blog? Hmm…I remember the article. Now you’ve got me curious where I read it.

  10. Amazing new things being discovered. I wonder how well some of this would sell to a jury. I can just see a defense attorney arguing over mosquito drippings.

  11. This is amazing, Sue. It seems Sherlock Holmes will now truly be redundant. 🙂 — Suzanne

  12. This is really fascinating, Sue! The better scientists get at understanding these processes, the better for law enforcement. And I think it’s important for crime writers to keep updated about it all. I’d read about the Tennessee Body Farm, but not the one in Texas. Interesting!

    • The Tennessee Body Farm is the original, but since then new body farms are popping up across the country. It’s difficult to keep up with all the incredible work they do, but I agree it’s important for crime writers to try to stay up-to-date. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Margot. Wishing you a relaxing Sunday!

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