Decomposition and insect succession on cadavers inside a vehicle environment

  • Sasha C. Voss
  • Shari L. Forbes
  • Ian R. Dadour
Original Paper


This study presents differences in rate of decomposition and insect succession between exposed carcasses on the soil surface and those enclosed within a vehicle following carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Nine 45-kg pigs were used as models for human decomposition. Six animals were sacrificed by CO gas, half of which were placed within the driver’s side of separate enclosed vehicles and half were placed under scavenger-proof cages on the soil surface. A further three animals were sacrificed by captive headbolt and placed under scavenger proof cages on the soil surface. The pattern of insect succession and rate of decomposition were similar between surface carcasses within trials regardless of the mode of death. Progression through the physical stages of decomposition was 3–4 days faster in the enclosed vehicle due to higher temperatures there compared to external ambient temperatures. Patterns of insect succession also differed between the vehicle and surface treatments. Carcass attendance by representatives of the Calliphoridae was delayed within the vehicle environment by 16–18 h, while oviposition was not observed until 24–28 h following death. In contrast, attendance by Calliphoridae at surface carcasses occurred within 1 h of death, and oviposition occurred within 6–8 h of death. Typical patterns of insect succession on the carcasses were also altered. Carcass attendance by representatives of the Coleoptera occurred during the bloat stage of decomposition at surface carcasses but was delayed until the onset of wet decomposition (as defined by carcass deflation and breakage of the skin) within the vehicle environment. This study provides baseline data outlining the decomposition patterns of a carcass enclosed within a vehicle following CO poisoning in Western Australia. Understanding how variations in decomposition situations impact on the rate of decomposition and patterns of insect succession is essential to obtaining an accurate estimate of minimum post-mortem interval (PMI).


Carbon monoxide poisoning Decomposition Forensic entomology Insect Suicide Vehicle 



We would like to thank Andy Szito, Department of Entomology, Agriculture Western Australia, for species determination, Natalie Campman, Jeremy Lindsey and Dr. Michelle Harvey for their assistance with sampling and rearing of entomological samples. For helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript, we thank Dr. Alexander Larcombe, Clinical Sciences, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Western Australia. Thanks are also extended to the Western Australian Police Property Tracing Section who provided the vehicles used in this study. Special thanks to Bob Cooper (University of Western Australia) for granting access to the study site and ongoing field support. This research was conducted with the approval of the University of Western Australia Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee (Ethics no. RA/3/100/022).


  1. 1.
    Avila F, Goff ML. Arthropod succession patterns onto burnt carrion in two contrasting habitats in the Hawaiian Islands. J Forensic Sci 1998;43:581–6.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Anderson G, VanLaerhoven S. Initial studies on insect succession on carrion in southwestern Bristish Columbia. J Forensic Sci 1996;41:617–25.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Shalaby O, deCarvalho L, Goff ML. Comparison of patterns of decomposition in a hanging carcass in contact with soil in a xerophytic habitat on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii. J Forensic Sci 2000;45:1267–73.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Early M, Goff ML. Arthropod succession patterns in exposed carrion on the island of O’ahu, Hawaiian Islands, USA. J Med Entomol 1986;23:520–31.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Schoenly K. A statistical analysis of successional patterns in carrion-arthropod assemblages: implications for forensic entomology and determination of the postmortem interval. J Forensic Sci 1992;37:1489–1513.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Amendt J, Krettek R, Niess C, Zehner R, Bratzke H. Forensic entomology in Germany. Forensic Sci Int 2000;113:309–14.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Archer MS, Elgar MA. Yearly activity patterns in southern Victoria (Australia) of seasonally active carrion insects. Forensic Sci Int 2003;132:173–6.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Dadour IR, Cook DF, Fissioli JN, Bailey WJ. Forensic entomology: application, education and research in Western Australia. Forensic Sci Int 2001;120:48–52.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Goff ML. Problems in estimation of postmortem interval resulting from the wrapping of a corpse: a case study from Hawaii. J Agric Entomol 1992;9:237–43.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Catts EP, Goff ML. Forensic entomology in criminal investigations. Annu Rev Entomol 1992;37:253–72.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Goff ML, Omori A, Gunatilake K. Estimation of postmortem interval by arthropod succession: three cases from the Hawaiian Islands. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1988;9:220–5.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Goff ML, Brown WA, Hewadikaram KA, Omori A. Effect of heroine in decomposing tissue on the development rate of Boettcherisca peregrine (Diptera: Sarcophagidae) and implications to the estimation of postmortem intervals using arthropod development patterns. J Forensic Sci 1991;36:537–42.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ruszkiewicz A, De Boer B, Robertson S. Unusual presentation of death due to carbon monoxide poisoning: a report of two cases. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1997;18:181–4.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Skopek MA, Perkins R. Deliberate exposure to motor vehicle exhaust gas: the psychosocial profile of attempted suicide. Aust N Z J Psychiatry 1998;32:830–8.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ostrom M, Thorson J, Eriksson A. Carbon monoxide suicide from car exhausts. Soc Sci Med 1996;42:447–51.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Kumazawa T, Watanabe-Suzuki K, Seno H, Ishii A, Suzuki O. A curious autopsy case of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in a motor vehicle. Leg Med (Tokyo) 2000;2:181–5.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Di Maio V, Di Maio D. Forensic pathology. Boca Raton: CRC Press;2001.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Osawa M, Horiuchi H, Yoshida K, Tada T, Harada A. A death in a stationary vehicle whilst idling: unusual carbon monoxide poisoning by exhaust gases. Leg Med (Tokyo) 2003;5 Suppl 1:S132–4.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Plueckhahn VD. Ethics, legal medicine and forensic pathology. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press; 1983.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Morgen C, Schramm J, Kofoed P, Steensberg J, Theilade P. Automobile exhaust as a means of suicide: an experimental study with a proposed model. J Forensic Sci 1998;43:827–36.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Tsunenari S, Yonemitsu K, Kanda M, Yoshida S. Suicidal carbon monoxide inhalation of exhaust fumes. Investigation of cases. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1985;6:233–9.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    DiMaio VJ, Dana SE. Deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning in an open environment (outdoors). J Forensic Sci 1987;32:1794–5.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Shattuck SO, McMillan P. Revision of the species of the Iridomyrmex conifer group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), with notes on their biology. Aust J Zool 1998;46:301–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Wooller R, Wooller S. Consistent individuality in the timing and magnitude of flowering by Adenanthos obovatus (Proteaceae). Aust J Bot 1998;46:595–608.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Zar JH. Biostatistical analysis, 2nd edn. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall; 1984.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Reed HB. A study of dog carcass communities in Tennessee, with special reference to the insects. Am Midl Nat 1958;59:213–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Hewadikaram KA, Goff ML. Effect of carcass size on rate of decomposition and arthropod succession patterns. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1991;12:235–40.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Morris B, Dadour I. Forensic Entomology; The use of insects in legal cases. In: Freckelton I, Selby H, editors. Expert evidence. Australia: Lawbook Co; 2005. pp 91A.1051–91A.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Rodriguez WC, Bass WM. Decomposition of buried bodies and methods that may aid in their location. J Forensic Sci 1985;30:836–52.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Fuller M. The insect inhabitants of carrion: a study in animal ecology. Counc Sci Ind Res Bull 1934;82:1–63.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Bornemissza GF. An analysis of arthropod succession in carrion and the effect of its decomposition on the soil fauna. Aust J Zool 1957;5:1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    O’ Flynn M. The succession and rate of development of blowflies in carrion in Southern Queensland and the application of these data to forensic entomology. J Aust Entomol Soc 1983;22:137–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Archer M. Annual variation in arrival and departure times of carrion insects at carcasses: implications for succession studies in forensic entomology. Aust J Zool 2003;51:569–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Shean B, Messinger L, Papworth M. Observations of differential decomposition on sun exposed vs. shaded pig carrion in coastal Washington State. J Forensic Sci 1993;38:938–49.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Goff ML. Estimation of postmortem interval using arthropod development and successional patterns. Forensic Sci Rev 1993;5:82–94.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Humana Press Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sasha C. Voss
    • 1
  • Shari L. Forbes
    • 2
  • Ian R. Dadour
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for Forensic Science, School of Anatomy and Human BiologyUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of ScienceUniversity of Ontario Institute of TechnologyOshawaCanada

Personalised recommendations