Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”

They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)

Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzees and their Dead Relatives

Chimps’ Emotional Response to Death Caught on Film
Ian Sample, The Guardian (April 26, 2010)


Chimps ‘feel death like humans’
BBC News (April 26, 2010)

We humans have a peculiar relationship with chimpanzees. On the one hand, we like to understand ourselves in terms of chimp behaviors: tool making, group cohesion, even DNA. On the other hand, we humans don’t like it when chimps become aggressive and harm other animals, including humans.

We here at the Death Reference Desk have actually discussed chimps and death before.

It makes complete sense, then, that two different academic journal articles on chimpanzees mourning other dead chimps would attract human attention. The articles, which are discussed in The Guardian and the BBC News, engage in heavy doses of anthropomorphic desire, so much so, that I almost feel bad for the chimps. While it’s true that some of the mourning behavior shown by one group of captive chimps is similar to some human behavior, I’m not so sure that it says anything about either species.

The two videos from the journal articles show the first group of chimps surrounding a dying and then dead chimp. The second video shows a young chimp playing with the mummified carcass of a chimpanzee which the mother has hung onto.

Video one is what humans love to watch because that’s what we do. Video two is a different story altogether and clearly demonstrates a difference between the species.

But maybe video two is what we humans should really be watching. Maybe the chimp playing with the mummified corpse is what we should pay more attention to since that behavior seems so inhuman. Playing games with dead bodies seems ghastly and is actually, depending on the location it occurs, criminal. But what prevents humans from doing what these chimps, our closest primate relatives, are doing? I’ll go a step further and say that maybe the chimps offer humans a lesson in not forgetting about the materiality of death…but now I’m anthropomorphizing too.

Video 1: Chimps mourning

Video 2: Chimps with mummified corpse

Death + Biology

Lolcats? No, Death Cat.

The story of Oscar, the “Death Cat”, is making the rounds these days. From articles in Discover and the New England Journal of Medicine, to an episode of House to a recent posting on this Danish death-related blog, AND a newly published book, this cat gets around—but only if you’re about to die!

Oscar is a therapy cat who currently resides at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His special (and for some, disturbing) talent is seeking out and curling up on the beds of terminally ill patients near death. Then, as soon as they’ve passed, he jumps off the bed and disappears.

Some say the cat is able to smell certain ketones in the blood that are released during the pre-death process. It is similar, they say, to the reported cases of cancer smelling dogs. Others think it’s just a coincidence or that he just likes to snuggle up with the heating blankets often present on the patient’s beds.

I tend to think that Oscar is indeed aware of something beyond human detection. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that their olfactory senses are so sensitive as to detect almost infinitesimal chemical traces in humans. Think of cadaver or drug-sniffing dogs, for example. Smell is such a powerful sense in both humans and animals—although we humans are like a brick of rock compared to the finely tuned nasal capacity of certain animals. Fun facts: Bloodhounds have over 300 million olfactory receptors and the average house cat has about 200 million receptors. Humans have a mere 5 million (New Scientist). And for more about smell, check out The Smell Report by the Social Issues Research Centre. But why does Oscar feel compelled to lay with the patient? Is he trying to comfort the dying? Or is he just trying to send a message/warning to the living and the dying, that hey, someone is going to die here? Who knows. But I think it’s super fascinating. What do you, dear reader, think?

Afterlife Death + Biology Death + Technology Death Ethics Defying Death

Mr. Freeze

Robert C.W. Ettinger

The January 25 issue of the New Yorker features an amusing article about cryopreservation of bodies, a.k.a. cryogenics or cryonics. The article doesn’t so much shed light on the science of this controversial procedure; but rather, it spotlights Robert C.W. Ettinger, one of the founders of the cryonics movement.

The ninety-one year old Ettinger gives journalist Jill Lepore a tour of his Cryonics Institute, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit. Ettinger is matter-of-fact as he dodders around the facility and explains the processes and pitfalls of cryopreservation. Ettinger’s two wives and his mother are frozen at the Institute as part of the current total of 883 members, not including the 64 pets also in cryostasis. Several pictures are here from the Immorality Institute’s forum page.

In his youth, Ettinger was a reader and writer of science fiction which informed his interest in and ultimately his career choice as a cryonicist. And indeed, he has an interesting take on what the future holds. Regarding the idea that if no one ever dies, won’t there be too many people on the planet? Ettinger posits:

The people could simply agree to share the available space in shifts and could “go into suspended animation from time to time to make room for others.” There will be no childbirth. Fetuses will be incubated in jars. Essentially, motherhood will be abolished. Then too, eugenics will help keep the birthrate down, and deformed babies could be frozen against the day that someone might actually want them.”

If you wish to learn more about Mr. Ettinger’s postulations, visit your local library or retailer and take a gander at some of his books:

Prospect of Immortality (2005)
Man into Superman (2005)
Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics (2009)

Death + Biology

The Population of the Dead

Despite the numbers of the dead being admittedly “highly speculative” in this visualization of the world’s population of the dead, I’m always a sucker for infographics. Click the image excerpt below to see the whole thing, or check out the blog post about it from the creator, Jonathan Gosier at Appfrica.

Death + Biology

Corpse Flower Blooms in Milwaukee

Corpse flower to Bloom at Milwaukee Museum
Associated Press (January 12, 2010)

It seems only too fitting. That a seven-foot tall Sumatran “Corpse Flower” will soon bloom at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I’m from Wisconsin so I can make all the jokes I want.

Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) it turns out that the Corpse Flower has made its way into the Death Reference Desk before. Last September, Death Ref Superstar Kim wrote the following:

The fascinating and frighteningly named “Corpse Flower” or amorphophallus titanum, as it’s scientifically known, will affront your sense of smell like no other plant on earth. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Sumatra (but grown in a few horticultural centers stateside), the Corpse Flower emits a rotten flesh smell that has people gagging for air within 10 feet of it.

You can read the whole post on death and smell here.

So remember everyone: when you go to Milwaukee don’t 1.) drink the water and 2.) don’t get within 10 feet of the local Amorphophallus titanum after lunch.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzee Funeral?

Behind the Lens: The Grieving Chimps
Jeremy Berlin, National Geographic Blog Central (October 29, 2009)

Fast on the heels of debatably mourning magpies, I offer you the somewhat more definitive (pics and it happened!) chimpanzee funeral, where huddled, sad chimps appear to pay their last respects to their dead companion Dorothy.

Photograph by Monica Szczupider

Of course the “funeral” and burial part was enacted by humans. But the photo is touching and striking nonetheless. From the National Geographic blog:

Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

No Tittering of Mourning Magpies

Magpies Hold Funerals for Fallen Feathered Friends
Lester Haines, The Register (October 21, 2009)

Animal Emotions, Wild Justice and Why They Matter: Grieving Magpies, a Pissy Baboon, and Empathic Elephants (paid access only)
Marc Berkoff, Emotion, Space and Society (August 27, 2009; doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.001)

Reporting on an unfortunately toll-access article from the journal Emotion, Space and Society, Lester Haines at The Register relays the claim that magpies appear to hold rituals for dead pals:

Dr. Marc Bekoff observed four magpies alongside a fallen comrade, and recounted: “One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcass of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”

Similar behaviors have been observed in other magpies, as well as in ravens and crows. Unfortunately The Register article is brief and the real deal’s under lock and key (well… $9.95). Several readers have weighed in in the comments, however, and probably without reading the actual research, many dismiss the claim as bad science and overt anthropomorphism, an accusation Beckoff has previously countered with, “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions.”

Hear, hear! (Full disclosure: I am closing in my 10-year anniversary as a vegetarian.)

Then again, I do enjoy rigor in my rigor mortis research — I’d like to know more about it. As for the post title, I love animal / social group names. Everyone knows it’s a murder of crows, many, an unkindness of ravens. Magpies are a gulp, tiding or tittering. Tee hee! And no one would be laughing at a funeral. At least not these magpies.

Burial Death + Biology Eco-Death

How Dead Bodies Become Beetle Juice

To Casket Or Not To Casket? One Of America’s Great Field Biologists Thinks About Burial
Robert Krulwich, NPR (October 9, 2009)

NPR science reporter Robert Krulwich (also of RadioLab fame) did this short piece (it’s a little over five minutes long) on the decomposition of dead animal bodies and their consumption by beetles. He interviews Professor Bernd Heinrich, an expert on all things animal, insect and decomposition. Check it out!
I am all for being left to rot in the woods after I am dead. Based on my current body size, I bet I could feed thousands of beetle families. It would be my way of giving back to the natural world.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Addicted to Loss

After a Death, the Pain That Doesn’t Go Away
Fran Schumer, New York Times (September 28, 2009)

Craving Love? Enduring Grief Activates Brain’s Reward Center
Mary-Frances O’Connor, et al., NeuroImage 42 (2008) 969–972.

As the New York Times reports, more than a million people per year suffer an “extreme form of grieving” following the death of a loved one — an anguishing bereavement that lasts more than six months after a death. The condition, known as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, has spurred its own methods of therapy and is under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-V, the standard for diagnosing mental disorders, due out in 2012.

Schumer also summarizes a 2008 study in the journal NeuroImage (linked above), which looked at the brain activity of people suffering from complicated grief:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that when patients with complicated grief looked at pictures of their loved ones, the nucleus accumbens — the part of the brain associated with rewards or longing — lighted up. It showed significantly less activity in people who experienced more normal patterns of grieving. …

The nucleus accumbens is associated with other kinds of longing — for alcohol and drugs — and is more dense in the neurotransmitter dopamine than in serotonin. That raises two interesting questions: Could memories of a loved one have addictive qualities in some people? And might there be a more effective treatment for this kind of suffering than the usual antidepressants, whose target is serotonin?

Death + Biology

The Nose Knows

Universal ‘Death Stench’ Repels Bugs of All Types
Hadley Leggett, Wired (September 09, 2009)

Cockroach Dead

The smell of death is all around us. Sometimes it hits the nostrils like a hammer to the skull; other times it goes undetected and unnoticed — at least to us humans. A few recent articles got me thinking about the phenomena of scent in the presence of death, or even in one case as a substitute for death.

In an article (linked above) in this week’s Wired magazine, the universal “death stench” is revealed.

Scientists have discovered that insects from cockroaches to caterpillars all emit the same stinky blend of fatty acids when they die, and this sinister stench sends bugs of all kinds running for their lives.

But it is further revealed that…

Thankfully, human noses can’t detect the fatty acid extracts. “Not like the rotting of corpses that occurs later and is detectable from great distances,” Rollo wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve tried smelling papers treated with them and don’t smell anything strong and certainly not repellent.”

Whew! When I think of all the cockroaches I’ve lived with and killed over the years….

Of course bugs aren’t the only non-humans to release a deathly perfume. The fascinating and frighteningly named “Corpse Flower” or amorphophallus titanum, as it’s scientifically known, will affront your sense of smell like no other plant on earth. Indigenous to the tropical forests of Sumatra (but grown in a few horticultural centers stateside), the Corpse Flower emits a rotten flesh smell that has people gagging for air within 10 feet of it.

And then there’s this recent news item about a morgue in San Mateo, CA, that needed to be evacuated due to the release of a chemical odor from a body undergoing an autopsy. Apparently, when the body was opened up, it was discovered that the person had ingested acetone, a colorless flammable liquid.

Putrefaction is one thing, but the smell emitted from corpses that contain deadly chemicals takes things to another level. The book Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning up After CSI Goes Home delves extensively into the subject of how bodies and body fluids are handled like toxic waste and all the steps taken to ensure safe handling. The bioremediation field is one in which the containment of smell plays a big part, not only for those working in the field, but for those friends and family left behind after the clean-up is complete.

Our olfactory nerves are assaulted daily with all sorts of smells, some sweet and mouth watering and others profound and profane. However you look at it, our sense of smell lets us know we are very much alive.

Death + Biology Death + Technology

Putrescine, Cadaverine, and Dog Job Stealing Robots

New Insights into the “Smell of Death” Could Help Recover Bodies in Disasters and Solve Crimes
American Chemical Society Press Release (August 16, 2009)

via SmartPlanet, “Smelling Death Electronically”
(John Dodge, August 26, 2009)

Okay, so “robot” may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, Penn State chemists are working on detecting and identifying the properties and release patterns of the gases expelled during the decomposition of bodies. Detecting such gases, including “putrescine” and “cadaverine,” is useful for locating the victims of natural disasters or discovering covert burial sites and mass graves.

As presented at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Sarah Jones and Dan Sykes propose that more detailed forensic information — gathered from dead pigs, which have a decomposition process similar to humans — could lead to a portable electronic device that can sniff out corpses more efficiently and cost-effectively than traditional, training-intensive cadaver hounds. Analyzing the presence and levels of the more than 30 compounds released over the course of decomposition, such a device could also pinpoint the time of death, quickly and on site.

According to the poster session abstract,

Human decomposition is a very complex process and has not been well studied at the chemical level. Studying the development of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) over a certain period of time, using pigs as an alternative to humans, could possibly provide important relevant forensic information about the unknown chemical composition of death. Solid phase microextraction fibers will be used to collect the VOCs that are released from the pig carcass during the early stages of decomposition. Once the compounds are collected, they will be identified and quantified using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The data collected will be used to determine if there is a true correlation between compounds present and the interval since time of death.

Poor pigs. Poor dogs. Gross gross gross all around. Go science!