Sunday, September 13, 2009

I Smell Dead People: Western Edition

It’s the end of summer and perhaps the cooler weather is why this month’s edition of ISDP is much shorter than the last. Still, if you’re an aficionado of the Dark Side of olfaction there’s plenty to explore. If you want happy happy nice scents then go watch the goddamn Food Channel.

We begin with this puzzling headline from the Las Vegas Sun:

Foul play not suspected after body found in trunk
Metro Police say a body found in the trunk of a Ford Taurus on Wednesday near McCarran International Airport is that of an adult female and no foul play is suspected.

Officers arrived about 3:55 p.m. Wednesday . . . after a security guard detected a strong odor from the car.
Apparently what happens in the trunk stays in the trunk . . .

On August 22, a man in South Austin, Texas, walked into a transient camp in a wooded area in his neighborhood “to investigate a bad smell.” He found a dead body.

After days of searching by friends and authorities, the body of a missing man in St. Anthony, Idaho, was discovered on September 4 in a canal just outside of town.
He was found tangled in a fence, which runs in the middle of the canal, by an employee with Summit Truss who was picking apples and noticed a foul smell.
In San Mateo, California, last week the usual sequence of events was turned on its head: a body started to smell only after it arrived in the morgue.
The San Mateo Fire Department received a call from workers at the San Mateo Medical Center morgue at about 11 a.m. Thursday, saying a body they were working on started emitting an unusual foul odor when they opened it up.

A representative from San Mateo Fire Department said an acetone-type of odor came from the body during the exam. It seems the patient, who died at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Redwood City, had ingested the colorless flammable liquid . . .
Two lab technicians and a coroner’s clerk suffered headaches and light-headedness from the fumes.

According to Canwest New Service reporter David Wylie, scientists at Penn State are working on an electronic nose they hope will replace cadaver dogs.
Sarah Jones, a forensic science graduate student who’s collaborating on the project, said a nose for death could also help crime scene investigators by pinpointing the exact time of demise quickly and at the scene. “Every step we take is towards that,” she said.

Researchers euthanized pigs, then placed them in specially designed “odour-collecting units” to study which chemical compounds were released. They found they can already determine time of death as accurately as investigators do by analyzing bugs on bodies.
Cool. That should shave 20 seconds off every episode of CSI.

In the course of the story Wylie invokes the Mechanical Hound from Fahrenheit 451 but his comparison is off the mark: the Hound’s nose was programmed with the scents of 10,000 unique individuals whom it could be directed to hunt down. In contrast, the Penn State cadaver-detecting e-nose will detect aromas common to all human physical decomposition.

Finally, here’s an item I meant to post many moons ago: it’s about necrophoresis—no, not the Norwegian death metal band, the behavior in which social insects remove dead colony members from the nest. Turns out that workers of the Argentine ant Linepithema humile use smell to identify dead nest-mates. That’s not too surprising; but here’s the twist: they don’t use the smell of decay. (They’ll even remove ants who’ve been dead less than an hour—too soon for much decay to happen.) Turns out the critical signal is the lack of a particular scent associated with live ants. If you paint the live-ant scent on a dead ant the workers won’t toss the body out. 

In the hive, it’s more like “I Smell Non-Living Ants”.


ScentScelf said...

No, no, no, I am happy to stay tuned (though I may watch The Food Channel later)... else would I be able to chuckle both at the inside out story about the corpse that hid a surprise AND the brilliant "No Foul Play Suspected." Heaven knows, I frequently drive out to the airport so I can grab a restful nap in the trunk of my car.

Thanks for capping the entertainment with a good think resulting from the ants. Off to figure out if I identify things, or identify what they are not...or if I can be part ant, part bloodhound.

Avery Gilbert said...


Aha! So there's at least one Uncle Fester type out there following ISDP. I figured if I tied notes to enough bats they'd eventually find the right belfrey.

As for smelling the absence of the thing--well, that's pretty Zen. But if an Argentine ant can do it . . .