University body farm sees increase in insect activity with high moisture

News Reporter

Research and studies at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) on Freeman Ranch were unaffected by the historic floods that swept through Hays County.

The entrance road to the 26-acre body farm was the only area flooded. Researchers did see an increase in insects that feast on the decomposing bodies at FARF.

“I think the most traumatic effect that the rain had on the facility was with the insects that feed on the body,” said Lauren Meckel, graduate research assistant for the anthropology department.

Meckel said the insects have been able to consume more tissue of the decaying body because temperatures aren’t as high. This allows them to be on the surface of the body for a longer period of time.

“Usually in later decomposition stages, we get beetles, ants, we get different types of flies,” Meckel said. “It’s been a large variety of insect activity.”

Justin Pyle, graduate student and volunteer for the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS), said temperature is one of the most important factors when it comes to human decomposition.

The decomposition process tends to begin when in a certain degree range, commencing at 40 degrees, said Pyle. The process begins to set in when in the high degrees, starting at 60.

High humidity keeps the soft tissue wet and allows the bacteria to grow, creating a better environment for decomposition, Pyle said. In Texas, the sun and the wind lead to mummification.

Pyle said the rain and the humidity that San Marcos has been receiving has “reactivated” the decomposition process. Scientists are still expecting the bodies to mummify again once the temperatures rise.

Meckel said mummification occurs in very hot and dry environments such as Texas. All the moisture in the body dries up and the outer layer tissue, or skin, turns into a “leathery” texture which remains for an extended period of time.

“For years, we’ve had really, really hot, dry summers where everything at the facility is dead—all the bodies were mummifying. That was pretty consistent for a long time,” Meckel said. “This is a very different gear for us.”

A wet environment will speed up the decomposition process, Pyle said. Recently, the bodies have been placed in shaded areas to record the decomposition process results compared to being directly exposed to sunlight, Meckel said.

“It’s hard to say how much [difference] is due to the rainfall and how much is due to it being in the shaded area and there being a lot of rainfall,” Meckel said.

Researchers at FARF have precautions in place for any for any potential flooding that should occur, Pyle said. The facility is elevated above the ground and the rain did not affect the bodies, nor were they submerged under water for any period of time.

“We try to take proper precautions,” Pyle said. “It would have to be a pretty drastic flood to reach where the facility is at.”

The ranch houses 150 decaying bodies, according to the Forensic Anthropology Research Center website.

“There is no good or bad effect, it’s just ‘what happens, happens,’” Meckel said. “It’s been very interesting to observe the difference in decomposition because of all the rain, and it’s been a cooler summer.”