Scientists Become Body Collectors To Solve Mysteries Of Decomposition : Shots - Health News People are dumping corpses in the high desert of western Colorado. But those unloading bodies aren't criminal masterminds. They're scientists. And out here, the usual rules of human decay don't apply.

To Solve Gruesome Desert Mysteries, Scientists Become Body Collectors

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People are dumping dead bodies in the high desert of western Colorado. But they're scientists not criminal masterminds. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell takes us to a place for forensic research in Grand Junction, Colo. And a caution over breakfast - this story contains some, you know, gross stuff.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: It's squint-your-eyes bright out here. Everything is dry - the air, the crumbly dirt, the scrubby plants. The only movement comes from the wind, an occasional car on the nearby highway and the prairie dogs that come out to chatter at intruders. Melissa Connor, a forensic scientist with Colorado Mesa University, comes out here on a regular basis.

MELISSA CONNOR: So it's rolling sagebrush and saltbrush-covered land. We have the Grand Mesa off to our back, and there's still snow cover up at the high altitude.

BICHELL: This site is officially called the Forensic Investigation Research Station, but people sometimes refer to the small plot Connor is walking towards as a body farm.

And I smell something funny.

CONNOR: Really? I don't.

BICHELL: We arrive at a 10-foot-tall fence topped with razor wire with another tall gate in front of that. It keeps curious people, like me, from peering through the cracks.

CONNOR: Yeah (laughter), there's oh so many reasons for the big fans.

BICHELL: I'm not allowed past this gate, so I give the microphone to Eriek Hansen, a biologist who also works here. Connor and her research assistant, Chrissie Baigent, put me on a cellphone.

Actually, wait. Let me put this on first. So let me - yeah, like that.


CONNOR: So we're entering the facility. And Chrissie, we have how many bodies here now?

CHRISTIANE BAIGENT: We have approximately 35 on the ground right now.

BICHELL: The small plot contains row on row of human bodies, all donated. They're naked and lying face-up as if they were cloud-gazing.

CONNOR: So let's go down, take a look at some of them.

This is Mr. 1612. He came in late in 2016. The insects have found the incisions from the autopsy and laid their eggs there. And they're doing their thing.

BAIGENT: Aggressive wriggling.

BICHELL: Bodies usually go from green to gray to black as generations of insects eat everything except the skeleton. But as Connor and Baigent know, that's not what will happen with Mr. 1612. Out here, the usual rules of decay don't apply. Instead of turning gray, for example, he might turn as bright orange as a traffic cone. His skin will dry out and harden so much that bugs won't be able to chew through it. Mr. 1612 will likely become a mummy, decaying in slow motion.

Now to understand why the details of Mr. 1612's decay are important, you have to look 700 miles south to another dry climate, the Sonoran Desert. There, bones and bodies turn up on a weekly basis.

BRUCE ANDERSON: There are literally thousands of migrants dying every year.

BICHELL: That's Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, Ariz. Over the last 20 years, he says his office has worked on identifying the remains of almost 3,000 people. Some of them were alive 10 minutes before Border Patrol found them; others had been dead for decades. Many of them likely died trying to cross the border into the U.S.

ANDERSON: Doesn't matter to me if they're Americans or not. They're dead, and they have people looking for them and people that miss them and people that love them. So that's why we do what we do.

BICHELL: One crucial part of Anderson's job is figuring out time of death because often the only clue relatives can offer is when their loved one disappeared.

ANDERSON: So if a skeleton is found in the Sonoran Desert and we think the person died between one and two years ago versus five and 20 years ago, that can save a lot of time in going through missing persons reports from those two different time periods.

BICHELL: Narrowing down when a person died can mean the difference between identifying a body and having to bury it anonymously. Back at the body farm, Connor is looking at another corpse.

CONNOR: Mr. 1401 - he's the individual we deposited here in January 2014.

BICHELL: This man died more than three years ago, but he's become a mummy. And because of that, it appears as if he's only been out here for a few months. Baigent, Connor and Hansen are working on new ways to measure changes in moisture, color and texture that, with the help of weather data, would let them back-calculate how many days a body like this has been outside.

ERIEK HANSEN: So if you went and looked at a rock and you saw the black lichen on a rock, that's sort of what the body looks like. It sort of has that texture, that color and that pattern that you'd see with lichen.

CONNOR: He has what I think actually is a black mold on some of him as well as - there are portions of the tissue that are much more parchment or vellum-colored.

BAIGENT: When you're looking at the whole body, it doesn't look like significant changes are occurring.

BICHELL: But, Baigent says, they are. You just have to look closely enough. If these scientists can get a handle on those details, it could help out their colleagues to the south, where thousands of bodies lie unidentified.

Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.

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