Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography and Anthropology

Document Type



Prior to the 2008 establishment of the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF), an outdoor laboratory dedicated to studying human decomposition, the forensic literature gave much focus to insect scavengers with little attention paid to animal and avian scavengers. Animal and avian scavengers were believed to arrive at a body late in the process of decomposition after the blowfly larvae had consumed the soft tissues and beetles had fed on any desiccated skin. However, recent research from Texas has illustrated that vultures are catalysts of the decomposition process, with the ability to skeletonize a human body in five hours. What remains unknown is why vultures have been absent from the seminal forensic texts and whether vultures are consistent in their arrival times during the decomposition process. Likewise, in which environments are vultures likely to scavenge and outcompete necrophagous insects such as blowflies in the acquisition of decomposing remains? The purpose of this study was to investigate vulture scavenging behavior and flight paths by using four broad methodologies: (1) long-term carrion decomposition field experiments combined with motion-activated infrared photography, (2) osteological analysis, (3) satellite telemetry, and (4) geospatial analysis. The specific objectives of this study are separated by chapter and include the following: • Ch. 1: Provide a brief overview of vultures in the literature; • Ch. 2: Describe the techniques and methods used to trap and tag vultures; • Ch. 3: Develop a list of traits that can be used to recognize vulture scavenged remains; • Ch. 4: Quantify and compare vultures’ times of arrival at carrion placed at FARF versus vultures’ arrival times at carrion placed at two other site types, thereby determining if resource predictability impacts when the vultures arrive to scavenge, and; • Ch. 5: Identify vulture scavenging habitats and flight patterns using geospatial techniques. Results reveal that 16 traits can be used to identify prior vulture scavenging, with the most beneficial traits being an intact vertebral column and down feathers left at the site. The site type did not impact vulture arrival times, but FARF was found to deter turkey vultures. Lastly, vulture flight patterns differed from those previously reported.



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Committee Chair

Leitner, Michael



Available for download on Tuesday, May 01, 2029