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Moisture can be the dominant environmental parameter governing cadaver decomposition in soil

Carter, D. O., Yellowlees, D. and Tibbett, M. ORCID: (2010) Moisture can be the dominant environmental parameter governing cadaver decomposition in soil. Forensic Science International, 200 (1-3). pp. 60-66. ISSN 0379-0738

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.03.031


Forensic taphonomy involves the use of decomposition to estimate postmortem interval (PMI) or locate clandestine graves. Yet, cadaver decomposition remains poorly understood, particularly following burial in soil. Presently, we do not know how most edaphic and environmental parameters, including soil moisture, influence the breakdown of cadavers following burial and alter the processes that are used to estimate PMI and locate clandestine graves. To address this, we buried juvenile rat (Rattus rattus) cadavers (∼18 g wet weight) in three contrasting soils from tropical savanna ecosystems located in Pallarenda (sand), Wambiana (medium clay), or Yabulu (loamy sand), Queensland, Australia. These soils were sieved (2 mm), weighed (500 g dry weight), calibrated to a matric potential of -0.01 megapascals (MPa), -0.05 MPa, or -0.3 MPa (wettest to driest) and incubated at 22 °C. Measurements of cadaver decomposition included cadaver mass loss, carbon dioxide-carbon (CO2-C) evolution, microbial biomass carbon (MBC), protease activity, phosphodiesterase activity, ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen (NRN) and soil pH. Cadaver burial resulted in a significant increase in CO2-C evolution, MBC, enzyme activities, NRN and soil pH. Cadaver decomposition in loamy sand and sandy soil was greater at lower matric potentials (wetter soil). However, optimal matric potential for cadaver decomposition in medium clay was exceeded, which resulted in a slower rate of cadaver decomposition in the wettest soil. Slower cadaver decomposition was also observed at high matric potential (-0.3 MPa). Furthermore, wet sandy soil was associated with greater cadaver decomposition than wet fine-textured soil. We conclude that gravesoil moisture content can modify the relationship between temperature and cadaver decomposition and that soil microorganisms can play a significant role in cadaver breakdown. We also conclude that soil NRN is a more reliable indicator of gravesoil than soil pH.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Agriculture, Policy and Development > Department of Sustainable Land Management > Centre for Agri-environmental Research (CAER)
ID Code:42864

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