14 Beyond Fascinating Things We’ve Learned From Body Farms

When most crime fans hear the words "body farm", they immediately think of the very first body farm (crime fans are very smart and fact-oriented) - the Anthropological Research Institute at the University of Tennessee, which opened in 1981. This is the one that started it all. Run by Dr. William M. Bass (and his students), the ARI added quite a bit of information to the field of forensic science. There are now five other body farms in the United States: Texas State University, Western Carolina University, Sam Houston State University, Colorado Mesa University, and Southern Illinois University.

What is a body farm, for those of you dipping you toes in for the first time? It's a place where researchers, forensic anthropologists, and students study things like the rate of decomposition, how long it takes a body to fully skeletonize, and the ways to properly process a crime scene involving a decomposed corpse. Body farms play an important role in forensic science, as the research conducted there has helped solve numerous crimes throughout the United States. Also, they're super metal.  

Photo: Yusuf IJsseldijk/CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

  • Cold Weather Slows The Rate Of Decomposition

    Cold Weather Slows The Rate Of Decomposition
    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    This one seems obvious. After all, there's a reason why funeral homes are kept on the chilly side and medical examiners keep bodies in frozen compartments. However, it took the research conducted at the body farm to conclude once and for all that cold weather does indeed slow the rate of human decomposition. Likewise, hot weather speeds up the process. Forensic scientists can examine a corpse, pull up weather records, and then use a combination of the two factors to determine a fairly accurate time and date of death. 

  • How To (Properly) Unearth A Corpse

    How To (Properly) Unearth A Corpse
    Photo: Tampa Police Department/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Knowing how to correctly dig up and process a dead body is something that is vitally important. In the field, law enforcement and forensic specialists work together to get the corpse out of the ground or away from the crime scene without disturbing clues that are needed later. For example, you need as many bones as possible need to be recovered, the plant life around the body matters, and the soil itself may hold the keys to the time and cause of death, as well as the body's identity. Because of this, body farms hold seminars where law enforcement trainees come in and practice unearthing corpses. Incidentally, those guys are super fun at parties.  

  • Rats Like Greasy Bones. Squirrels Like Old, Dry Ones

    Body farms not only study the rate of decomposition, but also the scavengers that feast on corpses. They have found that rats like greasy bones, and tend to chew on the ends of bones in order to gain access to the marrow within them. This means that if a body is found in the woods with bite marks on the ends, but nowhere else, rats found it. Forensic scientists can then look at that data and use it to help determine how long the body has been there.

    Squirrels, on the other hand, like dry bones - ones that have been laying around for a while and are fully exposed. Researchers believe that they use the calcium in the bones to help breed strong litters of baby squirrels. So, you know, that's both adorable and horrifying at the same time. Marks left on bones from squirrels indicate that the body was fully skeletonized and exposed in hot, dry weather.  

  • Blow Flies Flock To Freshly Deceased Bodies

    Blow Flies Flock To Freshly Deceased Bodies
    Photo: Karz09/CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

    Blow flies are the very first insects to arrive after a person dies. Other insects will emerge at different intervals, as they are attracted to various parts of the decomposition cycle. Some will lay eggs, while others, like mosquitos, will go after any blood that remains. Cute, right?

    Forensic entomologists study the insect activity on the bodies, and that they can use that data to determine the time of death of a real victim. If only blow flies are present, for example, they probably haven't been dead long.  

  • Decomposition Follows A Set Formula

    Decomposition Follows A Set Formula
    Photo: Rolling Thunder/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    One of the most interesting things developed from the experiments at various body farms is the decomp, or decomposition, formula.  This formula can tell researchers how long a body has been decomposing, essentially providing a time frame that states when death occurred.

    This formula is as follows: 1 week exposed to open air equals 2 weeks in the water equals 8 weeks buried in the ground. The last part of this formula refers to bodies that have been killed and then buried - not people who have been embalmed or mummified. The formula can be adjusted as needed to take other factors into account, such as air temperature and weather. 

  • It Takes 18 Months For A Body To Decompose Down To Just A Skeleton

    When left unburied and open to the elements, a human body can be stripped of its skin, organs, and tissue - down to just a skeleton - in a mere 18 months. That takes less time than most community college degrees. Of course, if part of the body is buried or it's left in a cold climate, the amount of time differs. This is why forensic scientists need to know everything about where the body was and what was around it, as those factors weigh into the time of death.