October 30, 2020

UT Researcher Studying if Plants can Point Them to dead bodies

University of Tennessee researchers and anthropologists will be seeing the same leaves changing as we are, but they’re looking for something different in 2020.

In Knoxville, the trees are still green, but in the next few weeks, you might see them starting to turn colors.

UT professor Neal Stewart is taking note of any changes in colors, sizes, and markings of plants near decomposing bodies at UT’s Body Farm.

Stewart says he’s looking closely at trees and other plants at the Body Farm at UT, where they have bodies donated to science. He hopes the results from the study could help investigators.

“We’re hoping to really push the boundaries of knowledge and hopefully find something that will really help people. Unless you can recover bodies of dead people, it’s hard to catch the bad guys,” said Stewart.

He adds the body to plant signaling only will happen when the leaves are still attached to the trees. After they fall off in October and November, they won’t be able to tell us anything.

“When the leaves are down, no problem, you will be able to actually see where the person may have died. But if someone is buried, or if there is a canopy of forest leaves and all the trees, then you can’t see them. So the idea for this research is to see if we can understand how decomposing humans could talk to plants, and then have the plants talk to the live people looking for dead people,” said Stewart.

Stewart says the study will last a year and then they’ll be able to share what they learned.