Behind a high-security fence at a secret bushland location outside of Sydney lies one of the only body farms in the world, where scientists are studying the various ways human corpses decompose.
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UPDATE: Researchers at the body farm have observed that dead bodies move significantly when they decompose
ABC News was given exclusive access to the body farm, which is the only facility of its type outside of the United States.
It is officially known as the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, and Shari Forbes, dubbed Australia’s Queen of the Dead, is one of its few living inhabitants.
There are currently 19 bodies at the facility in various burial scenarios.
“Nine of those are above ground in what we would call a surface deposition and 10 of those are below ground,” Dr Forbes told ABC News.
“We have several graves. One is a shallow grave to mimic a typical forensic scenario and the other two are deeper and involve multiple bodies and those would represent a mass grave scenario.”
Dr Forbes says they are trying to determine whether bodies decompose differently when they are bunched together in a mass grave.
“We only ever know the outcome when our archaeologists are involved in human rights investigations excavating mass graves and so we know what we see at the end but we don’t really have a good understanding of the differential decomposition — the fact that some bodies can be preserved and some can skeletonise in the same environment,” she said.
The scientists have also been collecting decomposition odour to help train cadaver dogs.
In order to do this, an aluminium hood is placed over a body and the odour is pumped into a tube for analysis.
Dr Forbes says a mass spectrometer — worth about $250,000 — can identify the chemicals in the odour, but even the high-tech machine cannot compete with specially trained dogs.
“[The machine] can detect about one part per trillion, which would be about a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized pools, so that’s really pretty good but it doesn’t really compare to the dogs,” she said.
“The dogs could do about one teaspoon of sugar in more like six Olympic-sized pools. So their sensitivity is far superior to any of the instruments we have.”