Bambi is adorable. But what deer do in real life isn’t always so cute. While studying the marks that animals leave on human carcasses, forensic scientists found one unexpected guest chewing on a skeleton that was left to decay.
These images are “the first known photographic evidence of deer gnawing human remains,” write researchers from the Forensic Anthropology Center of Texas State University, in a paper published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, May 2.
To study how human bodies decay over time and the signs of animal scavenging, forensic scientists have left donated human bodies outdoors on what is called a “body farm,” or an “outdoor human decomposition research laboratory” in San Marcos, Texas. Some of the bodies are left uncaged and exposed, so they could be consumed by turkey vultures, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, or other rodents.
A fresh, donated human body was placed outdoors July 2014, and after 182 days, the camera traps set up nearby caught a deer coming for the skeletal remains. A week later, a second picture was taken of a deer (they don’t know if it’s the same animal) gnawing on a rib bone, “amusingly, as extending from the side of the mouth like a cigar,” the authors write.
The location of the body farm is “host to one of the largest populations of white-tailed deer in the country,” but researchers have never witnessed them coming for human remains, says Lauren Meckel, co-author of the paper.
It is, in fact, not an unusual behavior to see in nature. Hoofed mammals, also called ungulates, are typically herbivorous, but they also sometimes chew on bones to take in supplements like phosphorous, calcium, sodium and other minerals absent from their vegetarian diet, in a practice known in biology as osteophagy. Meckel says there has been documentation of other ungulates consuming human bones, such as camels, giraffes, and sheep.
To reach the nutrient-rich marrow, the deer gnawed on the end of the flat rib bone, which became “forked” as a result. “Law enforcement may want to know if this would be some trauma that occurred at the time of death, and we would be able to say, ‘no it’s not,'” says Meckel.
Although deers might very well like a taste of your bones, rest assured that they (hopefully) will not chase after you for calcium supplement.