"Spruce forest at Holma" by W.carter / Public Domain

Could plants help us find dead bodies? Forensic botanists want to know

Sep 3, 2020

By Cell Press

Search teams looking for human remains are often slowed by painstaking on-foot pursuits or aerial searches that are obscured by forest cover. In a Science & Society article appearing September 3 in the journal Trends in Plant Science, the authors discuss utilizing tree cover in body recovery missions to our advantage, by detecting changes in the plant’s chemistry as signals of nearby human remains. Though the impact of human decomposition on plants has not yet been thoroughly explored, the researchers outline the steps needed to make body recovery using vegetation more of a reality.

“In smaller, open landscapes foot patrols could be effective to find someone missing, but in more forested or treacherous parts of the world like the Amazon, that’s not going to be possible at all,” says senior author Neal Stewart Jr., a professor of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee. “This led us to look into  as indicators of human decomposition, which could lead to faster, and possibly safer  recovery.”

Research into the relationship between plants and human decomposition will take place on the University of Tennessee’s “body farm.” Officially known as the Anthropology Research Facility, this is where scientists examine the process of human body decay under different conditions. There, investigators will assess how “cadaver decomposition islands”—the zone immediately surrounding humans remains—change the nutrient concentrations of the soil, and how those changes manifest in the nearby plants.

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