The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning: The Search, Pt I

A month ago, a team that consisted of Shari Forbes, a few Calgary Police Services Canine Unit officers and me, put out four pig carcasses in the wilds outside of Calgary so that we may see what scavenged upon them and eventually — hopefully — scattered the pigs’ remains.

On Thursday, we returned, with some help from Edmonton Police Services members and a Lethbridge member, to see what, if anything had happened.

Shari had set-up cameras at each carcass so that we could remotely monitor any big events. But the actual dispersal of remains, if it existed, would be unknown until we revisited each site and performed a search.

Thursday was the search day.

We didn’t know what to expect.

This is the first of four posts outlining what we found at each of the four sites.

At this site, the pig carcass, whatever remained, had ceased to be in the frame of the camera a long time ago.

Where had the carcass gone? Was anything left? If there was anything left, where was its remains?

The cameras had recorded grizzly bear, black bear, coyotes, and domestic dogs (likely from the nearby reserve) all visiting the area of the pig carcass. In fact, a grizzly bear appeared within 6 hours of us placing the pig carcass at the site. It’s rather frightening to think that this big male grizzly bear could have been watching us a month ago!

A male grizzly bear visiting the site within 6 hours of the pig’s deposition. This bear stayed at the carcass for the next 48 hours.

At the original deposition site (ODP), we found clothing and very little body staining from the decomposition of the carcass.

View of the Original Deposition Point (ODP) showing body staining: small dark patch in centre of frame with white surrounding.

We organized a search of the area wherein everyone lined up, with little space between each person. This is a forested area, full of black spruce and deadfall. Searching is not an easy task.

Why did the team start their search in a west direction? To the east, north, and south, the forested area ended and an open, grassy area started. To the west, the forest continued. We suspected scavengers dispersed the remains further into the forested area.

The team beginning their search.

The first bone fragment was discovered inside a tree trunk, about 3 feet above the forest floor and about 12 metres west of the ODP. The rest of the bones and bone fragments formed a trail of dispersal that headed west at least 60 metres.

View to the west, with the dispersal of pig remains shown by blue flags. The first bone fragment was discovered in the tree trunk to the right. Note the path of activity on the forest floor along this dispersal trail.

Then, about 65 metres west, the remains dispersal made a north-south pattern along a north-south existing game trail.

(Pictures here — one in situ, one on my notebook — show two vertebrae, both with evidence of scavenging.)

Remains of the pig’s maxilla (part of the skull) were discovered about 65 metres west of the ODP.

All of the remains we discovered were skeletal and most displayed evidence of scavenging.

Some skeletal elements we discovered were still articulated, like this partial vertebral column.

This articulated vertebral column was discovered about 20 metres west of the ODP.

(We found a den — likely coyote — about 300 metres west of the ODP. The remains of small mammals were discovered outside this den.)

What did we learn from searching this site?

  1. There was a discernible pattern in the dispersal of the pig’s remains.
  2. The dispersal pattern tended to follow existing or new game trails.
  3. We didn’t know which scavenger(s) was responsible for the dispersal. (We suspect the canids.)
  4. The dispersal pattern ranged from the ODP to at least 65 metres from the ODP.
  5. The dispersal pattern continued inside the forested area, rather than in the open, grassy area.
  6. A suite of scavengers can turn a complete, fresh carcass into skeletal fragments within a month.

Stay tuned for the search of Site #2 and what we found there!

Further Reading

Edmonton Journal – Dead pigs used in Edmonton animal scavenging study will help improve human remains investigations: police, forensic expert

Scattered Podcast

Bone Search and Recovery Short Course

Kjorlien, Beattie, Peterson – Scavenging activity can produce predictable patterns in surface skeletal remains scattering: Observations and comments from two experiments

The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning: The Search, Pt II and Pt III

5 responses to “The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning: The Search, Pt I

  1. Fascinating! A deer died on our 4 acre property near Airdrie a few winters ago. When we discovered it in early May, it was just bones – mostly related to the body and skull. The legs were dispersed – probably coyotes as we don’t have bears here. Smaller pieces of the leg bones still go on a walk-about now and then – don’t know what animal or bird hauls them from one place to another.

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  2. Pingback: The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning: The Search, Pt II | The Reluctant Archaeologist·

  3. Pingback: The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning: The Search, Pt III | The Reluctant Archaeologist·

  4. Pingback: The Smell of Dead Pig in the Morning | The Reluctant Archaeologist·

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