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News : Students in Entomology examine insects on decomposing corpses

Students in Entomology examine insects on decomposing corpses
By Laura Hoffman Purdue Exponent

Decomposing bodies stuck in a trash can sounds like a crime scene from an episode of CSI, but for some Purdue students it became a reality.

Purdue’s ENTM 295 class traveled down to Knoxville, Tenn., to visit a “body farm,” where over 150 bodies are decomposing. Dayson Smith, senior in the College of Technology, attended and said while at the farm, students collected maggots, documented temperatures and measured key points.

Since it was Smith’s first time seeing a dead body, he said he was unsure how he would react.

“It was eerie, it really was,” he said. “But, it was neat at the same time. I’ll never forget it ... They had a body in a trash can decomposing. It was literally just goop and bones. All you could see was a femur and pelvic bone sticking out.”

To Smith, the scene wasn’t as disturbing as the smell was.

“It’s got a road-kill-on-a-hot-summer-day smell mixed with a musty basement,” he said.

After adjusting to the stench, the students took insect samples off of two different bodies. They identified the insects later to figure out how each body died, said Matt Keen, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture.

“A maggot can tell toxicology,” he said. “If the person was on drugs you can use the maggot to figure it out because they will have the same drugs that the body did.”

The “body farm” is also helping forensic entomologists study how pesticides affect the insects close to decomposing bodies. With TV shows like “CSI,” criminals are realizing insects are a key part of death investigation, so some are trying to use pesticides to throw entomologists off of their trail, Keen said.

“At the body farm they are testing some of the bodies to see the exact science of how pesticides affect insects and see how long the delays are,” he said.

Before the field trip, the entomology students worked on pigs for most of their experiments. Because it was the first time most of the class had seen a dead body, Ralph Williams, professor of entomology, showed some videos demonstrating what a decomposing body would look like.

Brad Spray, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, had never seen a dead body before, but said the class helped him prepare for the scene.

“I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t really know how I was going to react,” he said. “It bothered me less than I thought it might.”