Many people died in the forest for a variety of reasons, whether by a tragic accident or their bodies were placed there by a man who tried to hide the remains, and the process of searching for human remains in the dense woods was often very difficult, even with the help of dogs. Now, a new study published in Trends in Plant Science offers the possibility that plants could be a signal to look for rotting corpses.
The idea is that when the body breaks down, it can dramatically alter the soil composition, affecting any plant that grows nearby. These differences can be like a “lighthouse” that alerts the search team to unusual areas.
The study, led by a team at the University of Tennessee, looked at changes in plant behavior in the face of rotting corpses. They refer to the immediate area around the body as the “body decomposition island” because it is separated from the rest of the forest soil in a significant way.
“When people go missing and die — whether it’s natural or criminal — if the weather is warm, the bodies of the dead begin to decompose,” Neil Stewart, co-author of the study, wrote in The Conversation. “And if they break down in the shade of the forest, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to find and recover their bodies. One solution is to learn how plants respond to decaying humans, and then ‘listen’ to what they are telling us about those who die under their canopy. “
One of the biggest contributions of a corpse to its soil is the influx of nitrogen. Plants tend to like nitrogen, which causes it to thrive, while also making the leaves of surrounding plants greener than usual. As Stewart points out, plant growth performance can vary depending on the drug a person is taking or the composition of metal elements left in his or her body.
Researchers still have a long way to go before they can put into practice the framework for getting clues from plant life, but early work has shown that this idea is promising. Some of the obstacles to be addressed include how to distinguish between dead people and changes in plant life caused by animals of similar size, such as large deer. Looking ahead, the team hopes to better understand “trees and shrubs to tell us about missing persons.”