July 19 (UPI) -- New research into the scavenging behavior of sharks is helping forensic scientists analyze human remains.
Until now, most such studies have focused exclusively on shark attacks.
"We don't know a lot about what human remains look like when a shark gets a hold of it," Allysha Winburn, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida's C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, said in a news release. "So when I had this case that seemed to me to have shark scavenging signatures on it, it seemed to be a really good opportunity to discover exactly what shark scavenging looks like."
Learning to differentiate between marks left by scavenging sharks and marks left by other means could aid criminal investigations involving human remains that have spent time in the ocean.
Unlike land-based carnivores, whose teeth leave puncture-like marks in human bones, shark scavenging leaves striations -- ridges, furrows or linear indentations.
The new study -- published this week in the Journal of Forensic Sciences -- involved the analysis of the remains of six human specimens found along the shore of Florida. The findings suggest shark scavenging is more common than shark predation.
Researchers were able to match the markings left in human remains with specific shark species, which in some cases helped identify where the scavenging likely occurred. By establishing specific species signatures, researchers hope they can make the job of identifying marks on human remains easier in the future.
"From a forensic standpoint, all these things are clues of what went on with that bone," said George Burgess, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "It very well allows the forensic community to understand when they see a bone that has this kind of a mark on it, it doesn't necessarily mean it was done by a knife or a machete. In fact, there could be a natural cause to what they're seeing."