Decomposition is the process by which organic material is broken down into simpler forms of matter. The process is essential for recycling the finite matter that occupies physical space in the biome. Bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death. Although no two organisms decompose in the same way, they all undergo the same sequential stages of decomposition. The science which studies decomposition is generally referred to as taphonomy from the Greek word taphos, meaning tomb.
One can differentiate abiotic and biotic decomposition or biodegradation. The former one means “degradation of a substance by chemical or physical processes, eg hydrolysis). The latter one means “the metabolic breakdown of materials into simpler components by living organisms”, typically by microorganisms.
Five general stages are used to describe the process of decomposition: Fresh, Bloat, Active and Advanced Decay, and Dry/Remains. The general stages of decomposition are coupled with two stages of chemical decomposition: autolysis and putrefaction. These two stages contribute to the chemical process of decomposition, which breaks down the main components of the body
The fresh stage begins immediately after the heart stops beating. Since blood is no longer being pumped through the body it drains to the dependent portions of the body, under gravity, creating an overall bluish-purple discolouration termed livor mortis or, more commonly, lividity. Shortly after death, within three to six hours, the muscular tissues become rigid and incapable of contraction which is known as rigor mortis. From the moment of death, the body begins losing heat to the surrounding environment, resulting in an overall cooling called algor mortis.
Once the heart stops, chemical changes occur within the body and result in changes in pH, causing cells to lose their structural integrity. The loss of cell structure brings about the release of cellular enzymes capable of initiating the breakdown of surrounding cells and tissues. This process is known as autolysis. Visible changes caused by decomposition are limited during the fresh stage, although autolysis may cause blisters to appear at the surface of the skin.
Oxygen present in the body is quickly depleted by the aerobic organisms found within. This creates an ideal environment for the proliferation of anaerobic organisms. Anaerobic organisms, originating in the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory system, begin to transform carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, to yield organic acids (propionic acid, lactic acid) and gases (methane, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia). The process of microbial proliferation within a body is referred to as putrefaction and leads to the second stage of decomposition, known as bloat.
Blowflies and flesh flies are the first carrion insects to arrive, and seek a suitable oviposition site.
The bloat stage provides the first clear visual sign that microbial proliferation is underway. In this stage, anaerobic metabolism takes place, leading to the accumulation of gases, such as hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, and methane. The accumulation of gases within the bodily cavity causes the distention of the abdomen and gives a cadaver its overall bloated appearance. The gases produced also cause natural liquids and liquefying tissues to become frothy. As the pressure of the gases within the body increases, fluids are forced to escape from natural orifices, such as the nose, mouth, and anus, and enter the surrounding environment. The build up of pressure may also cause rupturing of the skin.
Intestinal anaerobic bacteria transform haemoglobin into sulfhemoglobin and other coloured pigments. The associated gases which accumulate within the body at this time aid in the transport of sulfhemoglobin throughout the body via the circulatory and lymphatic systems, giving the body an overall marbled appearance.
If insects have access, maggots hatch and begin to feed on the body’s tissues. Maggot activity, typically confined to natural orifices and masses under the skin, causes the skin to slip and hair to detach from the skin. Maggot feeding, and the accumulation of gases within the body, eventually leads to post-mortem skin ruptures which will then further allow purging of gases and fluids into the surrounding environment. Ruptures in the skin allow oxygen to re-enter the body and provide more surface area for the development of fly larvae and the activity of aerobic microorganisms. The purging of gases and fluids results in the strong distinctive odours associated with decay.
Active decay is characterized by the period of greatest mass loss. This loss occurs as a result of both the voracious feeding of maggots and the purging of decomposition fluids into the surrounding environment. The purged fluids accumulate around the body and create a cadaver decomposition island (CDI). Liquefaction of tissues and disintegration become apparent during this time and strong odours persist. The end of active decay is signaled by the migration of maggots away from the body to pupate.
Decomposition is largely inhibited during advanced decay due to the loss of readily available cadaveric material. Insect activity is also reduced during this stage. When the carcass is located on soil, the area surrounding it will show evidence of vegetation death. The CDI surrounding the carcass will display an increase in soil carbon and nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium; changes in pH; and a significant increase in soil nitrogen.
During the dry/remains stage, the resurgence of plant growth around the CDI may occur and is a sign that the nutrients present in the surrounding soil have not yet returned to their normal levels. All that remains of the cadaver at this stage is dry skin, cartilage, and bones, which will become dry and bleached if exposed to the elements. If all soft tissue is removed from the cadaver, it is referred to as completely skeletonized, but if only portions of the bones are exposed, it is referred to as partially skeletonised.
Decomposition begins at the moment of death, caused by two factors: autolysis, the breaking down of tissues by the body’s own internal chemicals and enzymes, and putrefaction, the breakdown of tissues by bacteria. These processes release gases that are the chief source of the unmistakably putrid odor of decaying animal tissue.
Most decomposers are bacteria or fungi, though scavengers also play an important role in decomposition if the body is accessible to insects and other animals. The most important insects that are involved in the process include the flesh-flies (Sarcophagidae) and blow-flies (Calliphoridae), such as the green-bottle fly seen in the summer. The most important non-insect animals that are typically involved in the process include larger scavengers, such as: coyotes, dogs, wolves, foxes, rats, crows and vultures. Some of these scavengers also remove and scatter bones, which they ingest at a later time.