Image of Deer Scavenging Human Bones Shocks, But Helps Scientists

Experts know that deer sometimes find the minerals and nutrients they need in animal bones.

By Michael MarksMay 10, 2017 11:21 am

Lauren Meckel was scrolling through photographs of woodland creatures sniffing at a corpse when she came across an unusual sight – a deer with a human rib in its mouth.

Meckel is the acting coordinator of the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Center, where she and her colleagues study the science behind decomposing bodies. The center’s game cameras frequently capture images of possums, raccoons and foxes scavenging on human remains, but this was the first time a deer has been documented engaging in this activity.

Meckel and her colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

“It was a little surprising because we’d seen so many images of deer [at the facility], but never before had we seen the deer actually pick up one of the bones,” Meckel says.

She says deer are known to scavenge the skeletal remains of other animals, which they do to get specific minerals or nutrients they’re not otherwise getting in their diet.

“Seeing it occur in human remains [gets people] a little overly excited,” Meckel says. “But at the same time we are also animals, so it’s not surprising that if they’re scavenging non-human bones, they would also scavenge human bones.”

Meckel says this image does more than just provide new insight on deer behavior – it will also help law enforcement agencies identify unknown human remains by expanding existing information about scavenger markings on bones.

Oftentimes we see marks from other scavengers like carnivores and rodents on the bone,” Meckel says. “This helps us talk to law enforcement about the difference between what they might see on human remains as trauma but is not actually in fact trauma but is scavenging.”

Understanding at what point in the decomposition stage deer scavenge human remains could also help estimate time since death.
Written by Molly Smith.