Camera Trap Catches Deer Gnawing Human Remains


Researchers reviewing footage at a Texas forensic research facility were startled to see an unfamiliar face hovering over a decomposing human body. They described their discovery in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Texas State University's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) is what’s known colloquially as a body farm: a large area of indoor and outdoor space where scientists can study the effects of various influences on decaying human remains. The research conducted at FARF and other forensic facilities helps us understand what happens after we die, and it informs law enforcement as they investigate crimes.

The folks at FARF are used to seeing strange and unpleasant things. Camera traps posted near bodies throughout the landscape allow them to watch as scavengers like foxes and birds move in. But until they pulled the footage from January 2015, nobody there—or anywhere else—had ever seen a human-eating deer.

(Warning: the images below are, well, exactly what you think they’re going to be. Proceed gingerly.)

Meckel et al., J Forensic Sci 2017

Ungulates like deer, sheep, and even giraffes have been known to gnaw bones in the wild from time to time; the theory is that they’re after some nutrients that they haven’t been able to get elsewhere. Still, human bones are something different altogether.

This was not just some weird deer having a weird day. The camera traps captured a deer (possibly the same deer, possibly not) on two separate occasions that month holding a human rib bone in its mouth “like a cigar,” as the researchers write. The body had lain in that spot for six months.

Meckel et al., J Forensic Sci 2017

The findings have implications beyond merely creeping us out. If chowing down on human remains is something that deer do, even occasionally, it’s a factor that forensic law enforcement will need to consider in future investigations.

[h/t Popular Science]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]