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Taphonomy Experiment

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Published on Apr 3, 2014

A WORD OF CAUTION. THE CONTENT OF THIS VIDEO IS GRAPHIC AND MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME VIEWERS.
This is a time lapse record of an experiment conducted during TIGHAR's Niku V expedition in 2007. The experiment was designed and supervised by forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns PhD. The purpose of the experiment was to answer questions about the taphonomy (process of decay and decomposition) of a large mammal on Nikumaroro.
In 1940, the partial skeleton of a castaway was found on Nikumaroro (then known as Gardner Island). There is reason to suspect that the castaway was Amelia Earhart. Only 13 bones were recovered. The rest of the bones were presumed to have been carried off by the giant Coconut Crabs (Birgus Latro). We reasoned that if we could get a sense of how long it takes the crabs to reduce a human body to a few bones we could estimate how long the castaway had been dead when the partial skeleton was discovered in September 1940.
Volunteers were not forthcoming so Dr. Burns used a pig carcass, the traditional substitute for humans in such experiments. We expected it would take longer than the three weeks we had at the island for the crabs to dispose of a complete pig so Dr. Burns started with a fresh, meaty skeleton (minus the head thank goodness). With the help of the expedition physician Dr. Robin Acker, she attached a surgical screw and a long, brightly colored string to each bone to make it easier to find them if they were carried off by the crabs. The pig carcass was laid out and a camera with infrared capability was mounted on an overhead tree branch. An image was taken every two minutes. The experiment continued for two weeks. Near the end, Dr. Burns fast-forwarded the experiment by disarticulating the skeleton to see if crabs would carry away bones. Very few did. We learned that the crabs lost interest in the bones once they had dried out. On Nikumaroro, it's all about moisture. The number of bones left are an indication of how long it took for them dry enough to no longer be of interest to the crabs, not an indication of how long the subject has been dead.

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