Welcome to the Body Farm

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iStock.com/stockcam

By Rene Ebersole

Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.

It was Valentine's Day when the gravediggers finished. The crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.

Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.

Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of only four such facilities in the country. Since its inception in the early ’80s, its three wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.

It’s here, using donated cadavers, that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death—that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free. “The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.” Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.

PLOTTING THE FARM

Back in 1969, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needed some advice. He had a dead cow on his hands and was trying to determine when it had died. At the time, cattle rustling was a local problem. Rustlers killed cows in the field, butchered them on the spot, hung up the meat in refrigerated trucks, and sped off. With thousands of acres to manage, ranchers rarely discovered the carcasses before several weeks had passed. Inevitably, they would call the police. But the cops were powerless—without knowing when the cows had died, there was no way to build a timeline and narrow the suspects.

The investigator figured that if anyone could age a bovine carcass, it was Bill Bass, a 41-year-old forensic anthropology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Bass sometimes lent a hand identifying skeletal remains for the agency and local law enforcement. He could look at a pile of bones and read clues in them: who the person was, what had happened. Bass’s credentials were impeccable. He’d trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the internationally renowned bone detective Wilton Krogman, known as the “medical Sherlock Holmes.” Krogman had worked on hundreds of criminal cases: everyday homicides, mob victims dug from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, even the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. One of the major things he’d taught Bass was how teeth can shed light on a murder victim’s age and identity.

But Bass didn’t have much experience studying the remains of large livestock. When he first got the request, he did what any scientist would do. “I looked in the literature,” says Bass, now 85. “There wasn’t much there. So I called him back and said, ‘We really don’t know this. But if you can find a rancher who would give us a cow, I will look at it every day to see what’s happening.’ I put a P.S. on that letter and said, ‘We really need the rancher to give us four cows. One in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Because the major factor in decay is temperature.' Well, nothing ever happened with that.”

A few years later, in the spring of 1971, Bass took a new job teaching at the University of Tennessee. He moved to Knoxville, where the Tennessee medical examiner asked whether he would serve as the state’s forensic anthropologist. Bass accepted and quickly realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In the sparsely populated and relatively arid Midwest, police typically brought him boxes of dry bones. In Tennessee, which had twice as many people and significantly more rainfall, the corpses were “fresher, smellier, and infinitely buggier.” When agents asked how long the bodies had been stewing, Bass could hardly say; there was no scientific basis for an answer.

So he resolved to fill the void. “In 1980, I went to the dean and said ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on,’” he recalls. “Everybody says, ‘Well, what’d he say?’" Bass continues. “He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone and called the man on the agriculture campus who handles land, and I went over to see him.” There were a couple of wasted acres behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the facility used to burn its trash, the ag man said. Bass could use those.

CSI: FARM

On his newly staked plot, Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?

They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.

There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.

As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”

In the three decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”

An image from the body farm.
Graham Yelton

With hundreds of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the center continues to grow. And recently, it acquired a new piece of land that promises to take forensic research to a whole new level. In 2007, a Vancouver-based forensic anthropologist named Amy Mundorff was rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia. Mundorff, who carries a Prada key chain emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, was a veteran of the New York medical examiner’s office. She’d been injured as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and then spent years identifying the remains of victims before relocating to the West Coast. With her on the cliffs was an old friend, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University.

As the two scientists scaled the face of granite masiffs, they chatted about their research. Mundorff wanted to use her experience in New York to tackle global human rights issues, but she knew about the field’s frustrations. While attempting to recover a victim of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, one of her colleagues had followed a tip and dug around the suspected grave site, only to come up empty-handed. All the known graves in Bosnia had been excavated, Mundorff told Medler, yet more than 7000 people were still missing. Where could they be? Without better technology, the mystery might never be solved. Forensic scientists working with human rights groups were trying to use satellite imaging and aerial photography, but those methods weren’t effective at finding unknown burial sites.

“Has anyone tried lidar?” Medler asked. Lidar is a remote sensing laser technology that analyzes light reflections to detect subtle changes in the topography of the land. Medler had been introduced to it while studying the effects of forest fires. Unlike satellite scans, lidar penetrates the tree canopy, making it possible to see where the ground has been disturbed. Mundorff and Medler realized that maybe they had found a solution. Excited by the possibilities, they wanted to team up on a study immediately, but lidar was expensive. To do real experiments they’d need funding and the support of a research facility. They looked for open grants but were unsuccessful.

Finally, in 2009, Mundorff took a job as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department and moved to Knoxville. Now she had the resources, the land, and the support of an internationally renowned institution. She called Medler and told him that they were going to test their theory. Medler was thrilled; he would consult from afar.

As soon as Mundorff arrived in Tennessee, she began doing the spadework for the lidar project while also working on a study examining the DNA in skeletal remains. Six months in, she got an email from a prospective graduate student named Katie Corcoran who had been using lidar on archaeological sites; Corcoran wanted to apply the same technology to finding mass grave sites. “I was blown away because she literally pitched our idea right back at me,” Mundorff says.

The fence around the body farm.
Graham Yelton

To begin the study, Mundorff would need a fresh piece of land. The center had recently acquired an adjacent property, which was quickly designated for the project. Ten bodies were ready, gifts from donors who wanted to help advance forensic science. There was just one hurdle: The new property needed fences—one for privacy and a barbed-wire one for security. This didn’t prove so easy. For three years, approvals sat snagged in university red tape. Mundorff was frustrated. At last, in February 2013, the fences went up, and by Valentine’s Day, the burial site was ready to receive the bodies.

Mundorff and her team were primarily looking at how decomposition changes the chemical content of the soil and nearby vegetation. This is the reason it had been important to secure new land, away from where other cadavers had decayed. If the extra nitrogen emitting from the corpses went into the soil, theoretically it would fertilize plants, resulting in subtle cues over the burial site—the plants would be greener and taller than the surrounding vegetation because they’d thrive in the aerated nitrogen-rich soil. That fine contrast—potentially not discernible by people traveling through a jungle on foot—might be detectable with lidar.

Mundorff and her team have another theory they’re testing using thermal imaging technology. Because decomposition creates a lot of thermal energy, imaging equipment can help identify areas where “something warm is going on,” Mundorff says. Last fall, a partnering colleague from Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up $150,000 worth of thermal equipment on the property. With temperature probes in the ground, a giant camera took pictures at five-minute intervals, allowing researchers to see the changes in temperature overnight. On the first night, Mundorff and Corcoran camped out at the center, their sleeping bags spread out on desks. They didn’t want anything to happen to the equipment. (What if it rained?) They ordered takeout Mexican and set an alarm to go off every hour so they could stumble through the dark woods to check on the camera. “Katie carried the spider stick,” says Mundorff. “She has no fears.”

THE FUTURE OF FORENSIC SCIENCE

Today, data from the experiment is just beginning to accumulate. But what Mundorff and Corcoran suspect—and hope the experiment confirms—is that graves with multiple bodies emit more heat than those with fewer. (The empty grave is the control, representing a place where there might be a hole but no bodies.) “There are hidden graves all over the world, and a good number of them are in areas that are still dangerous,” says Mundorff. “Being able to detect them remotely is a first step in recovering the bodies and returning them to the families—and in collecting evidence if there are going to be criminal prosecutions.”

Over the next three years, about a dozen researchers and graduate students will continue monitoring the four graves. If things go as planned, the project will assist countries trying to recover from the losses of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of people. Human rights investigators are searching for genocide victims in Argentina, Cyprus, Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and beyond. Steadman hopes the center can play a role in helping families find their loved ones. Bass, for his part, intends to remain part of the effort by donating his own remains to the body farm. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I don’t see why I should stop when I die. If the students can learn something from my skeleton, well that’s OK with me.” He’s not alone in this hope. Nearly 3300 people from all 50 states and six different countries have registered to join him.

This story originally ran in Mental Floss magazine in 2014.

12 Facts About Diabetes Mellitus

iStock/mthipsorn
iStock/mthipsorn

Thirty million Americans—about 9 percent of the country's population—are living with diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes. This chronic condition is characterized by sustained high blood sugar levels. In many patients, symptoms can be managed with insulin injections and lifestyle changes, but in others, the complications can be deadly. Here's what you need to know about diabetes mellitus.

1. There are three types of diabetes.

In healthy people, the pancreas produces enough of the hormone insulin to metabolize sugars into glucose and move the glucose into cells, where it's used for energy.

But people with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of the disease, accounting for about 95 percent of cases—either can't produce enough insulin to transport the sugars, or their cells have become insulin-resistant. The result is a buildup of glucose in the blood (a.k.a. high blood sugar or hyperglycemia). Type 2 diabetes typically develops in adults.

Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, makes up the remaining 5 percent of chronic cases and most often develops in children and young adults. With this condition, the initial problem isn’t blood sugar levels, but insulin production: The pancreas can’t make enough insulin to process even normal amounts of glucose. The sugar builds up as a result, leading to dangerous concentrations in the bloodstream.

The third form, gestational diabetes, only afflicts pregnant people who weren’t diabetic before their pregnancy. The mother's blood glucose levels usually spike around the 24th week of pregnancy, but with a healthy diet, exercise, and insulin shots in some cases, diabetes symptoms usually can be managed. Blood sugar levels tend to return to normal in patients following their pregnancies.

2. The mellitus in diabetes mellitus means "honey sweet."

Around 3000 years ago, ancient Egyptians described a condition with diabetes-like symptoms, though it wasn't called diabetes yet. It took a few hundred years before the Greek physician Araetus of Cappodocia came up with the name diabetes based on the Greek word for "passing through" (as in passing a lot of urine, a common diabetes symptom). English doctor Thomas Willis tacked on the word mellitus, meaning "honey sweet," in 1675, building on previous physicians' observations that diabetic patients had sweet urine. Finally, in 1776, another English physician named Matthew Dobson confirmed that both the blood and urine of diabetes patients were made sweeter by high levels of glucose in their blood.

3. The cause of one type of diabetes is well understood; the other, not so much.

A person’s lifestyle is a key predictor of developing type 2 diabetes. Factors like being overweight or obese, consuming a high-calorie diet, smoking, and seldom exercising contribute to the risk. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar—soda, candy, ice cream, dessert— may contribute to hyperglycemia, but any food that’s high in calories, even if it's not sweet, can raise blood sugar levels.

In contrast to these well-established factors, medical experts aren’t entirely sure what causes type 1 diabetes. We do know that type 1 is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body attacks and damages insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Some scientists think that environmental factors, like viruses, may trigger this immune response.

4. Family history also plays a role in diabetes risk.

If a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, you are predisposed to developing pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle habits explain some of these incidences, since family members may share similar diets and exercise habits. Genetics also play a role, but just because one close relative has diabetes does not mean you're destined to. Research conducted on identical twins, which share identical genes, showed that the pairs have discordant risk. Among twins in which one has type 1 diabetes, the other has only a 50 percent chance of developing it; for type 2, the risk for the second twin is 75 percent at most.

5. Racial minorities are at a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Many racial minority groups in the U.S. have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and some groups of Asian Americans are more likely to have pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes than white Americans. This can be partly explained by the fact that some of these groups also have higher rates of obesity, which is one of the primary risk factors of type 2 diabetes. Socioeconomics may also play a role: One study shows that people with diabetes living in poverty are less likely to visit diabetes clinics and receive proper testing than their middle-income counterparts. According to another study, diabetic people without health insurance have higher blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol rates than insured diabetics. Genetics, on the other hand, don’t appear to contribute to these trends.

6. Diabetes is one of the world's deadliest diseases.

With proper management, people with diabetes can live long, comfortable lives. But if the disease isn’t treated, it can have dire consequences. Diabetics make up the majority of people who develop chronic kidney disease, have adult-onset blindness, and need lower-limb amputations. In the most serious cases, diabetes leads to death. The condition is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, killing more people than breast cancer and AIDS combined.

7. Millions of Americans are pre-diabetic.

According to the CDC, 84 million adults living in the U.S. are pre-diabetic: Their blood sugar is higher than what’s considered safe, but hasn't yet reached diabetic level. In pre-diabetic patients, blood glucose levels after eight hours of fasting fall between 100 and 125 milligrams per deciliter, and diabetic levels are anything above that. People with pre-diabetes are not just at a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, but also for heart disease and stroke. Fortunately, people who are diagnosed with pre-diabetes can take steps to eat a healthier diet, increase physical activity, and test their blood glucose level several times a day to control the condition. In some cases, doctors will prescribe drugs like metformin that make the body more receptive to the insulin it produces.

8. After climbing for decades, rates of diabetes incidence are declining.

In the U.S., the rate of new diagnoses skyrocketed 382 percent between 1988 and 2014. Globally, 108 million people had diabetes in 1980, but by 2014 that number was 422 million.

But thanks to nationwide education and prevention efforts, the trend has reversed in the U.S., according to the CDC. Since peaking in 2009, the number of new diabetes cases in America has dropped by 35 percent. In that same timeframe, the number of people living with diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. has plateaued, suggesting people with the condition are living longer.

9. The first successful treatment for type 1 diabetes occurred in 1922.

Prior to the 20th century, type 1 diabetes was usually fatal. Diabetic ketoacidosis—a toxic buildup of chemicals called ketones, which arise when the body can no longer use glucose and instead breaks down other tissues for energy—killed most patients within a year or two of diagnosis. In searching for way to save children with juvenile (type 1) diabetes, Canadian physician Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best built on the work of earlier researchers, who had demonstrated that removing the pancreas from a dog immediately caused diabetes symptoms in the animal. Banting and Best extracted insulin from dog pancreases in University of Toronto professor J.J.R. Macleod's lab. After injecting the insulin back into dogs whose pancreases had been removed, they realized the hormone regulated blood sugar levels. On January 11, 1922, they administered insulin to a human patient, and further refined the extract to reduce side effects. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.

10. A pioneering physicist discovered the difference between type and and type 1 diabetes.

In the 1950s, physicist Rosalyn Yalow and her research partner Solomon Berson developed a method for measuring minute amounts of substances in blood. Inspired by Yalow's husband's struggle with diabetes, Yalow focused her research on insulin. Their "radioimmunoassay" technology revealed that some diabetes patients were still able to produce their own insulin, leading them to create two separate categories for the disease: “insulin-dependent” (type 1) and “non-insulin-dependent” (type 2). Prior to that discovery in 1959, there was no distinction between the two types. In 1977, Yalow won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the radioimmunoassay, one of only 12 female Nobel laureates in medicine.

11. Making one insulin dose once required tons of pig parts.

Insulin is relatively easy to make today. Most of what's used in injections comes from a special non-disease-producing laboratory strain of E. coli bacteria that's been genetically modified to produce insulin, but that wasn't always the case. Until about 40 years ago, 2 tons of pig pancreases were required to produce just 8 ounces of pure insulin. The pig parts were typically recycled from pork farms.

12. A quarter of diabetes patients don’t know they have it.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can develop for years before patients think to ask their doctor about them. These include frequent urination, unexplained thirst, numbness in the extremities, dry skin, blurry vision, fatigue, and sores that are slow to heal—signs that may not be a cause for concern on their own, but together can indicate a more serious problem. Patients with type 1 diabetes may also experience nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

While serious, the symptoms of diabetes are sometimes easy to overlook. That’s why 25 percent of people with the illness, 7.2 million in the U.S., are undiagnosed. And that number doesn’t even cover the majority of people with pre-diabetes who aren’t aware they’re on their way to becoming diabetic.

There Are 2373 Squirrels in New York's Central Park, Census Finds

iStock/maximkabb
iStock/maximkabb

Central Park in New York City is home to starlings, raccoons, and exotic zoo animals, but perhaps the most visible fauna in the area are the eastern gray squirrels. Thanks to a team of citizen scientists, we now know exactly how many of the rodents occupy the space—approximately 2373 of them, according to a census reported by Smithsonian.

In October 2018, a group called the Squirrel Census—with help from the Explorers Club, the NYU Department of Environmental Studies, Macaulay Honors College, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation—organized a squirrel survey across all 840 acres of Central Park. For 11 days, more than 300 volunteers staked out their sections of the park twice a day—at dawn and dusk when the crepuscular animals are most active—and noted each squirrel they spotted. They also recorded how the squirrels looked, vocalized, behaved, and reacted to humans.

The research was analyzed and presented at an Explorers Club event in New York City on June 20. All the non-peer-reviewed findings—which includes a printed report, an audio report on a vinyl 45, 37 pages of data, collectible squirrel cards, and large maps of the park and the squirrel locations—are available to purchase for $75 from the Squirrel Census website.

This isn't the first time a massive census has been conducted of a public park's squirrel population. In 2011, the Squirrel Census launched with its first survey of Atlanta's Inman Park. They've conducted satellite squirrel counts at other parks, but Central Park is just the second park the organization has investigated in person.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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