[This talk contains graphic images] My parents always wanted me to be a doctor. But a doctor that studies how vultures eat dead things is probably not the type of doctor my parents had in mind.
I study vulture scavenging behavior and how vultures affect crime scenes. I'm here to talk to you about how we take vultures for granted in forensic science. Before we do that, I want to tell you a story. So we're going to take a trip, all 1,000 of us. It's May 2014 and we're standing in a park in Nashville, Tennessee, because we've been at a horse race. As we wait for the porta potty, we see two ladies in their Sunday best: heels, pearls and lovely, floppy derby hats. At any moment, we expect them to start talking about their grandma's fine china. But they don't. Instead, we hear them say, "Oh, look. Something must be dead." We look up and to the left and see vultures circling round and round. It occurred to me at this very moment that if these ladies at the derby are aware of vulture's connection to death, then why aren't we talking more about these birds at crime scenes?
People know that vultures are connected to death. But they don't really understand how. For example, here's an email I received from a detective in Louisiana: "Lauren, there's been a kidnapping. What buzzards or vultures do we have in Louisiana?" Before we address the kidnapping, I'll first address this buzzard/vulture question I get all the time. Buzzards don't live in the United States. They are hawks that live in Europe. The big black birds you see circling in the sky within the US are vultures. The two types of vultures that live in Louisiana are the turkey vulture and black vulture. To fully understand the role of vultures in forensic science, I'll walk you through this forensic case.
From the email, certain things become apparent. We can assume the detective thinks the individual is dead. And he wants to use the birds to try to find the body. Like the ladies in Nashville, the detective thinks that vultures circling in the sky will lead him to the body. It's not that simple. I don't know if you've ever seen a vulture up close or spent much time with them, but they're huge, huge. Six-foot wingspan. Vultures circle in the air because they are too big to flap their wings and fly, so they soar. They soar in thermals, which are vortexes or little tornadoes caused by pressure differences in the air that form throughout the day as the sun heats up the ground. Therefore, when you see a circling vulture, the bird is usually traveling from point A to B, rather than circling above something dead.
Actually, if you want to use a vulture to try to find a body, look for a vulture in a tree or on a fence post. Vultures are too big and slow to hunt. So they have to scavenge. In fact, vultures are the only animals in the world that depend upon death as a food source. The turkey vulture that you see here is super cool, because it's one of the few bird species that can actually smell. It hones in on the deceased by sensing a chemical that's coming off the body during decay. The evolutionary role of the vulture is to rid the earth of harmful toxins produced following death. Once death has been detected, the turkey vulture lands and quickly scavenges. Vultures usually remove the eyes first, then tear the skin, start pulling the tissues, and leave you with a skeleton. Therefore, the importance of vultures is not in the air, but on the ground.
Vulture scavenging is somewhat gruesome. If you're ever on a bad first date, just reference this talk, and I don't think you'll have to worry about your potential suitor giving you another call.
Although gruesome, vultures are key forensic players, and here's why. Vultures will consume a dead human just like they will consume roadkill. But you don't ever hear about that, and it's because vultures are so good at what they do. If vultures depend on death for survival and if they scavenge humans, then how can vultures be absent from forensic textbooks and training manuals? The answer: the tradition has been for researchers to exclude animal scavengers from decomposition studies by placing a cage over the decaying subject matter. Why? Because researchers were afraid an animal would run away with their subject matter and they wouldn't have any data to report — consequently excluding animals' results in a lengthy skeletonization process, and this information is currently what detectives use during investigations.
A lot of times at a crime scene when people see a skeletonized body, they think, "Wow, this has been here for a really long time undiscovered." Oh, no, no, no, no. Vultures accelerate decay. And the skeletonized body could have been there for as little as five days if scavenged by vultures. The failure to account for vulture scavenging can result in forensic scientists inaccurately estimating how long someone has been dead and then searching through the wrong missing person's files. Therefore, the goal is to get forensic scientists to focus on vulture evidence and to get law enforcement to consider vulture scavenging and a possible recent death when skeletal remains are found.
Let's get back to the importance of the kidnapping case. I responded to the detectives and told them that vultures like areas with water. They like areas with white-tailed deer, they typically arrive within the first five days following death, they're going to leave an intact spinal column and feathers. The detectives write back and say, "We found the body buried in a shallow grave. We also found the feathers you mentioned." But there appeared to be a problem because the feathers were located 40 yards from where the body was found. The feathers were next to a bloody pine cone. Vultures aren't attracted to blood, and they typically don't wander. They might wander 40 feet, but they're not going to wander 40 yards. That would be a waste of energy for a bird that doesn't know when it will get its next meal. So my first job here was to determine if vultures were at the scene. Indeed, the feather by the pine cone was consistent with the turkey vulture. So why in the world would a vulture wander 40 yards?
One of the reasons I love vultures is because they tend to operate in a manner that can be explained by biology and physics. I started mentally going through the numerous bating experiments I had conducted at a body farm in Texas. A body farm is a place where you can donate your body to science. I also went through my experiences with trapping and GPS tagging vultures. And then the year-long process of monitoring vultures via remote GPS technology. Next, I brought up my field notes and had an "Aha!" moment. I knew of two things that would lure a vulture 40 yards from a body. Guts and brain matter. I presented this information to the detectives and learned that they suspected the victim had been incapacitated by blunt force trauma to the head. The blow to the head was thought to have occurred in the area where the pine cone was found, and then the victim was drug 40 yards and buried in a shallow grave. This suggested that brain matter was the lure for the vulture and illustrates how studying vulture behavior can help piece together some of the evidence.
The detectives also sent me this photo. The victim's arm is sticking up out of the grave. As a forensic scientist, you have to think about the whole picture. The feather by the pine cone indicated that vultures were at the scene. This crime scene photo also depicts characteristic vulture scavenging behavior. We zoom in, we see a white down feather, which is characteristic of the turkey vulture. Also note that the skin has a cut-like tear near the wrist. The turkey vulture smells the decay, lands. It can get through the pine needles, pull out the hand, it's going to tear the skin with its beak and then start pulling the soft tissues away from the bone. Just tear and pull, tear and pull, tear and pull.
This photo illustrates the scavenging efficiency of vultures. This is important because it helps support the time line the detectives are putting together for the murder. There's not a whole lot of evidence. You're not likely going to see the vultures at the crime scene. Instead, vultures just leave these very subtle clues. Rather than looking for the vulture, look for the feathers and pristine bones. Vultures are important because they are so good and fast at what they do. They're like tornadoes. If you blink, you will miss them.
I provided my opinion about the vulture evidence to the detective. And he presented the vulture evidence in court. The kidnapping case was a death penalty case. And the defendant was found guilty. This case illustrates how studying vulture behavior helps innovate forensic science. Someone who has been murdered deserves the most thorough investigation possible. When we include vultures in forensic studies, we paint a more thorough picture of what happened, when it happened and who it happened to. So, the next time you're at a crime scene with a dead body —
look to the ground to find the clues vultures have left. And if anyone ever brings up vultures on a date, you'll know they're a keeper.