Researchers at the University are investigating the changes that happen to remains after death. This is done with the aims of further understanding decomposition processes; improving post-mortem interval estimations, to help with the location of remains and associated evidence at suspected crime scenes; and improving our understanding of the ecology of death.
The research areas are diverse and range from analysis of the overall physical changes during decomposition to microbiological profiling and changes at the molecular level. Forensic entomology and mycology are also major foci with work being conducted on maggot activity and insect succession, and the degradation of hair.
Examples of Current Projects
One of the main questions posed when remains are found, whether they are skeletal or still with soft tissue, is how long the remains have been present at the site.
Insects that can and are found at body deposition sites can help answer this question. Forensic Entomology or the use of insects to aid legal investigations has be used for many years and can provide fundamental evidence both in criminal and civil cases. The use of insects found at a crime scene to aid forensic investigations is a practice that is becoming an important tool and a more commonly used technique in forensic science.
The aim of this research is to provide a comprehensive review of entomology and other associated forensically relevant evidence that can be found at deposition sites in the West Midlands.
The main areas of study include arthropod succession, maggot migration, negative photo-taxis, cadaver decomposition islands and aggregation to provide reliable and contemporary data regarding entomological evidence that could be found at a crime scene. This includes observing the entomology that are attracted to a cadaver and their behaviour. Initial analysis has been focussed on the migration of maggots, with Dipteran larvae consistently moving beyond distances stated in forensic entomology standard operating procedures.
The research is conducted in collaboration with Dr Michael Whitehead, Dr Georgina Manning and PhD student Dawn Morgan. Poster presentations that have been given regarding search distances and other results can be found here: ResearchGate.
Forensic taphonomy is an important branch/sub-discipline of forensic anthropology which has become a popular focal point for research within the United Kingdom (UK). Whilst there has been an increase in research, there is still a lack of publicised outputs due to a variety of challenges including funding, experimental location, time, and sample sizes. Research within forensic taphonomy is vitally important in developing taphonomic models for the UK which can help estimate the postmortem interval.
In this research, we are conducting detailed investigations of taphonomic changes to buried cadavers and the surrounding environment, by exploring macroscopic, microscopic, molecular, microbiological and chemical changes. Decomposition will be analysed over various time periods (short-term to long-term); exploring both DNA and RNA degradation; the analysis of crystal formation with the identification and sequencing of crystal developing bacteria; and volatile organic compounds analysis of the decomposing remains. This will provide data which will help with estimation of the postmortem interval and cadaver location indicators within the UK.
The research is conducted in collaboration with Dr Christopher Rogers, Mr David Walker and PhD student Heather Angell. To find out more about this research: ResearchGate