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Scientists study body decomposition in the deep sea

By Brooks Hays
Scientists study body decomposition in the deep sea
Scientists prepare to submerge pig carcasses in the deep waters of the Strait of Georgia. Photo by SFU/PLOS ONE

BURNABY, British Columbia, March 30 (UPI) -- A team of Canadian researchers have been plunging pig carcasses into the waters off the coast of British Columbia -- all in the name of taphonomy, the study of decaying organisms.

Most recently, the scientists submerged pig carcasses in the deep, dark waters of the Strait of Georgia, the channel of water that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland British Columbia.

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The submerged bodies experienced "a dramatically different scavenging progression," decomposing at a much faster rate than those suspended in shallower water.

Pig carcasses approximate the human body in size and skin type, as well as in the types of bacterial communities they harbor.

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In previous studies, researchers found pig carcasses could survive for weeks or months when suspended at roughly 330 feet in the Saanich Inlet and between 25 and 50 feet in the Howe Sound. Whether the carcass remained intact for a couple weeks or several depended on water depth, temperatures, oxygen levels and other factors.

For the latest study, pigs submerged to nearly 1,000 feet didn't last nearly as long.

"We've found that in highly oxygenated deeper water, it can be expected that such a body would be skeletonized in less than four days, although bones could be recovered for six months or more," Gail Anderson, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, said in a news release.

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Anderson says her research team's findings -- detailed in the journal PLOS ONE -- will help recovery divers know what to look for and could even aid criminal investigations.

"When bodies or body parts are recovered, such information may also be valuable in estimating a minimum submergence time and indicating types of waters or habitats to which the remains may have been exposed," she said.

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