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Vultures Destroy Forensic Evidence When They Pick At Corpses, Study Shows

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This handout photo taken on February 9, 2009 and released by the Bird Conservation Nepal shows a flock of vultures feasting on an animal carcass in Nawalparasi district, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Kathmandu, where the country's first
This handout photo taken on February 9, 2009 and released by the Bird Conservation Nepal shows a flock of vultures feasting on an animal carcass in Nawalparasi district, 120 kilometres (75 miles) southwest of Kathmandu, where the country's first "vulture restaurant" was launched. Nepal's vultures -- decimated by medicine fed to the livestock they call dinner -- are making a comeback thanks to their own chain of healthy-eating restaurants. (Anand Chaudhary/AFP/Getty Images)

Somewhere in Texas, people are videotaping vultures ravaging a human body. Twisted horror flick? No. Just another day in forensic science.

In a pilot study published in the journal Forensic Science International, scientists left a donor's body in at the university's well-known 'body farm' to be scavenged, "skeletonized," and strewn about by vultures.

What's the purpose behind such gruesome research? When human body parts are found in the wilderness, detectives can have trouble determining the important details about a death. What was the time of death? And was the body attacked by vultures or something else?

"Vultures throw off the time-since-death estimation significantly," said Texas State University in San Marcos researcher, Dr. Katherine Spradley, in an interview with New Scientist. "Prior to our study, if you came across disarticulated remains you would assume that they were dismembered by a carnivore - and then remain puzzled when there are no gnaw marks typical of carnivores."

Using the decomposing corpse of a person whose body had been donated to science, Dr. Spradley and her team observed the vultures' behavior the grounds of the university's "outdoor human decomposition laboratory."

After a little over a month, a fleet of 30 American black vultures discovered the body and picked it bone-dry in just five hours. The researchers expect these findings to illuminate future time-of-death calculations.

Over the next 15 weeks, researchers mapped the pattern of discarded body parts using GPS, showing how far away the vultures can carry chunks of uneaten carcass.

"We now need more studies replicating this pilot study," Dr. Spradley said."There could be differences in the time of year and temperature that affects how active the vultures are."