In an unprecedented finding, researchers spotted a deer chewing on a human rib during a study aimed at examining how human remains decompose in the wild.
Scavengers take advantage of opportunities to eat, and carcasses left in the wild often decay quickly because animals can make quick work of the remains–even human remains.
Known as “body farms,” some research facilities study how human remains decompose in the open air, including which animals interact with the corpse.
Foxes, turkey vultures, raccoons, and other scavengers are commonly seen helping themselves to decomposing bodies. Researchers at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility in San Marcos, Texas, set up a camera to see whether any other scavengers would stop by–and they were not disappointed.
In a study published this week in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, researchers highlighted their finding: Ungulates, too, will partake in human flesh, if it’s available.
White-tailed deer are considered herbivores and subsist on a diet of readily available plants, including twigs, fruits, nuts, alfalfa, and the occasional fungi. (Read more about the white-tailed deer.)
Deer may pursue flesh because they lack minerals like phosphorous, salt, and calcium, especially in the winter months when plant life is scarce.
While this finding sheds light on deer behavior, forensic scientists are also heralding the study as useful for cases in which a body has long been decomposing. If scientists can identify the teeth marks of deer and other ungulates on human bones, it will help in new cases and could clear up confusion in older crime scenes, where only carnivorous scavengers were thought to chew on human bones.