NMU students prepare plot site for human decomposition program

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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - Northern Michigan University's Forensic Research Outdoor Station program (FROST) is nearly underway. But before the FROST program can begin studying human decomposition in cold weather climates, the plot site must be prepared.

Earlier this semester, students dug 10-foot pits at the site to make sure they weren't causing any disturbances and tested the soil. Friday, an entomologist showed four students how to collect insects underneath the snow.

"Currently we're working on a bug study, so we're actually dropping pitfalls down and we're going to use those to be able to see what type of insects are on the body and they're going to be running through these different platforms," says Ryan Peterson, an NMU senior anthropology student.

Those bodies he's referring to are pig bodies. Within the next month, this training will be used to perform a study on how bugs affect the decomposition process of pigs during the winter, before they move on to actual human donors' bodies.

"It's known that insect activity affects decomposition, but to my knowledge it hasn't really been studied systematically in a climate like ours, where we're studying what's actually happening underneath the snow. So it's one of the important baseline studies that we need to have done for when we have our human donors out here to know what to expect eventually," says Jane Wankmiller, director of NMU FROST and a forensic anthropologist.

FROST expects to have human donors on the plot in mid- to late Spring, which will coincide with the completion of the anthropology lab just north of NMU’s campus.

Each donor will have its own plot section and be covered by a cage to limit large animal scavengers. From there, researchers will be able to perform studies and see how the body decomposes and reacts to the cold weather.

"The main community that this is geared toward is the medical-legal community, the law enforcement community, to really help with case investigation and investigation of deaths. We need to build that story - we call it a biological profile - we need to build a biological profile in order to maybe match the unidentified remains up with missing persons and be able to get those cases solved," state Wankmiller.

Once the bodies completely decompose, the bones will be used for additional testing and put into a permanent skeletal collection.

"It's really the beginning of something that could be really big and it's really exciting to be part of," Wankmiller exclaims.

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