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Pig Carcasses Aren’t a Great Model for Studying Human Decay, Study Finds

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Like so many fields of science, forensics relies heavily on the use of animals as human stand-ins. But a new study calls the wisdom of that practice into question, since researchers have found drastically different decay patterns for the bodies of humans, pigs, and rabbits. The scientists recently presented their findings to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Our bodies, like every organism on the planet, are in a constant state of decay. Our cells are in perpetual turnover, dying and being replaced. Once we die, that replacement stops, and other processes and actors take over. Bacteria and fungi flourish and spread, gradually breaking down our flesh. Bodies left out in the open attract invertebrate scavengers like maggots and beetles, and vertebrates like birds and raccoons turn up to take away what’s no longer needed.

The details of the process are both fascinating and important to understand, especially for the scientists who aid police in investigating deaths. But finding human bodies to study is pretty difficult (if you do it legally, anyway), and so researchers often look to the bodies of pigs and other non-human animals. 

But what’s true for a pig is not always true for a person. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) tracked the day-by-day breakdown of 15 human, 15 pig, and 15 rabbit bodies through spring, summer, and winter. (The FAC, more commonly known as the Body Farm, is one of the few places in the U.S. that provides researchers with access to decaying human bodies.)

They found great variation in the speed and manner in which species decayed. In spring, for example, human and pig bodies were fairly well-matched until about 25 days in, when the pig bodies started rapidly turning to skeletons. Rabbit bodies broke down slowly at first, then quite rapidly once the maggots set to work. One rabbit looked fine one day, but was partially reduced to a skeleton 24 hours later.

In summer, pigs decayed faster than people and rabbits, turning to skeletons within 12 days. In winter, for obvious reasons, the bodies were insect-free for the first 100 days, but had plenty of visits from larger scavengers. Those raccoons, opossums, birds, and skunks were far more interested in human bodies than those of rabbits or pigs.

“This strongly indicates a preference for the humans over the other species,” the authors report. They conclude that human decomposition is a lot less predictable than that of pigs, which is bad news for all those pig studies.

“This research provides guidance to lawyers and judges concerning the admissibility of testimony by anthropologists and entomologists,” said principal investigator and FAC director Dawnie Steadman in a press statement. “Now [they] may be asked in court which studies they used to base their estimate of postmortem interval, and if they are based on nonhuman studies, their testimony could be challenged.”

[h/t Forensic Magazine]

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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Animals
If You Want Your Cat to Poop Out More Hairballs, Try Feeding It Beets
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Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to get your cat to poop out its hairballs instead of hacking them up? If so, you’re likely a seasoned cat owner whose tolerance for gross stuff has reached the point of no return. Luckily, there may be an easy way to get your cat to dispose of hairballs in the litter box instead of on your carpet, according to one study.

The paper, published in the Journal of Physiology and Animal Nutrition, followed the diets of 18 mixed-breed short-haired cats over a month. Some cats were fed straight kibble, while others were given helpings of beet pulp along with their regular meals. The researchers suspected that beets, a good source of fiber, would help move any ingested hair through the cats’ digestive systems, thus preventing it from coming back up the way it went in. Following the experiment, they found that the cats with the beet diet did indeed poop more.

The scientists didn’t measure how many hairballs the cats were coughing up during this period, so it's possible that pooping out more of them didn’t stop cats from puking them up at the same rate. But considering hairballs are a matter of digestive health, more regular bowel movements likely reduced the chance that cats would barf them up. The cat body is equipped to process large amounts of hair: According to experts, healthy cats should only be hacking hairballs once or twice a year.

If you find them around your home more frequently than that, it's a good idea to up your cat's fiber intake. Raw beet pulp is just one way to introduce fiber into your pet's diet; certain supplements for cats work just as well and actually contain beet pulp as a fiber source. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care in New York, recommends psyllium powder to her patients. Another option for dealing with hairballs is the vegetable-oil based digestive lubricant Laxatone: According to Dr. Liff, this can "help to move hairballs in the correct direction."

[h/t Discover]

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