Mongoose CSI

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Recent taphonomic studies conducted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) have shown that urban scavengers, like mongooses, can play a vital role in cracking murder cases. Taphonomy is the study of how organisms decay.

UCT honours student Max Spies, under supervision of Dr Victoria Gibbon and Dr Devin Finaughty, set about researching the impact of Cape grey mongoose scavenging habits on the rate of decay in small domestic pig carcasses. Spies’s research revealed a mongoose is capable of dragging small body parts, such as fingers, up to 12m away from a corpse.

“This knowledge has already aided us in one forensic case from Table Mountain National Park,” says Gibbon, senior lecturer in the Department of Human Biology at UCT. However, this time it was a yellow mongoose. “We were able to recover not only additional bony elements but the personal artefacts that helped identify the deceased,” she explains.

Cape grey mongoose drawing

Sketch: Graham Kearney

The Cape Flats is the most densely populated area in Cape Town, with one of the highest murder rates in the country. The region is primarily made up of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld, and Cape Flats

Mongoose habitat: Sand Fynbos

Sand Fynbos, ideal to hide human remains. It also happens to be prime mongoose habitat. Cape Town is home to three species of mongoose: the Cape grey mongoose (Galerella pulverulenta), the yellow mongoose (Cynictis penicillata) and the Cape water mongoose (Atilax paludinosus). Vertebrate scavenging can dramatically increase the rate of decomposition.

Scavenging habits of mongooses

“Our study in 2017 found that both scavenged carcasses were reduced to a skeleton within 14 days, whereas the caged control carcass took over 93 days,” explains Gibbon. Scavenging mongoose can leave spoor and scat around the corpse. Unlike hyena and other scavengers, the teeth of mongoose species are not suited for gnawing bone so the skeletal system is left intact, with the exception of small body parts.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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