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Can whale-fall studies inform human forensics?

Published onJun 05, 2021
Can whale-fall studies inform human forensics?
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Can whale-fall studies inform human forensics?

Experimental knowledge of human body decomposition in the deep ocean is very limited, partly due to the logistical challenges of deep-sea research. The literature on ecological responses to the arrival of naturally sunk and implanted whale carcasses on the seafloor represents a potential source of information relevant to questions of human body survival and recovery in the deep ocean. Whale falls trigger the formation of complex, localized, and dense biological communities that have become a point of interest for marine biologists for the past 2–3 decades. Researchers have documented whale falls by whale type, size, geographic location, water depth and water chemistry, and there have been some comparative analyses of decomposition rates and faunal presence on carcasses. We undertook a review and meta-analysis of the whale-fall literature to identify and statistically model trends relevant to human forensics. Results from studies using deep-sea cameras baited with pig carcasses and simulated carrion provided further validation of noted trends. The stages of whale carcass decomposition most relevant to human forensics are those characterised by mobile scavengers that strip the soft tissues from carcasses, and to a lesser degree, other biota that degrade skeletal material. Our statistical models used the number of faunal taxa attracted to the whale carcasses as a measure of the ecological response and the potential rate of decomposition. Negative binomial models identified significant influences of carcass age and dissolved oxygen concentration on the ecological response (taxon numbers). The strongest environmental effects were identified in data from experimental studies that implanted whale carcasses across a broad range of dissolved-oxygen conditions. We propose directions for further experimental research to refine models of environmental controls on decomposition in the deep sea. Our results also highlight the potential use of publicly available global databases on environmental conditions in the deep ocean for informing body scavenging activity and thus body survival. Applying a forensic lens to whale-fall studies provides a window into an otherwise unseen world from the standpoint of human forensic taphonomy.


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