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Decomposition best observed in person

Wed., Sept. 3, 2008

One of the newest online classes at Washington State University will require some use of good, old-fashioned snail mail.

After all, you can’t e-mail a pig.

Bethany Marshall’s course in forensic ecology teaches students – mostly people in law enforcement – how to investigate decomposing bodies and the insect and plant life around them to determine a time of death. It’s important science when bodies are found, and she’s taught on-campus classes and workshops around the state for several years.

This is the first year the course, Forensic Ecology for Law Enforcement, is being offered online. Over six weeks, students will learn how to evaluate crime scenes, identify and preserve evidence, and use ecological and biochemical analyses.

In addition to computer activities and quizzes, students can choose to be mailed a fetal pig to bury in the backyard or some out-of-the-way place. Students are supposed to track the pig’s bodily changes as well as changes in insect life and plant development around it.

“Certainly I’m going to recommend, if it’s at all possible, for them to decomp a pig,” Marshall said. “The smell is not that big of a deal. There’s probably a week where it’s pretty strong. Other than that, it’s not particularly offensive.

Marshall has been studying decomposing pigs – which come from a separate university research effort – for several years at a site near Albion called the Smoot Hill Reserve. She’s also had some pigs decomposing for more than a year at sites in Snohomish and King counties.

Immediately after a death, there are a lot of scientific markers that can help pinpoint when it happened, including the temperature of the body to the temperature of some fluids, Marshall said. As time progresses, forensic experts can track insect life and other surrounding signs. But once a body is reduced to its skeleton, finding information can be harder – investigators typically focus on the progression of beetle species that move through.

Marshall has helped analyze bodies in scores of criminal cases and trained law enforcement officers to use forensic ecology to aid in investigations where bodies are found.

“It’s been really, really exciting, putting this science to work putting bad guys in jail,” she said.

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