A team of forensic investigators based in Australia recently decided to run a grisly experiment: they have been taking time-lapse photography of a corpse every 30 minutes for 17 months while it decomposes.
Astonishingly, they found that the corpse often moved and "significantly" throughout the first year and beyond.
This new discovery could lead to new approaches to forensic investigations in murder cases.
For almost a year and a half, a camera at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) — a decomposition research facility or a 'body farm' — has been trained to take images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. Throughout this entire time, the corpse showed signs of movements.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Alyson Wilson a medical scientist at Central Queensland University told the ABC.
Some movement after death is expected, but the fact that it continued for such a long time was a complete surprise, Wilson said.
A significant discovery for death investigations
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out," she said in a press release.
"This knowledge could be significant in unexplained death investigations."
As Science Alert reports, the findings could make forensic crime scene investigators reassess their approach. In particular, this could have an impact on the analysis of human remains that have been undiscovered for a long time.
It is now deemed more likely that these remains will have moved throughout this period, meaning the position might not be as important as previously thought.
Investigators can no longer assume that the position of a body in a crime scene is the position it was in, at the time of death.
Wilson says more research should be carried out on characteristic movements after death. If patterns can be found in the way bodies move, crime scenes will be more efficiently analyzed in the future.
A paper describing the movements has not yet been published, though it is a continuation of the work described in the forensic science journal Synergy.