Taphonomy experiments

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Taphonomy is the study of how organisms decay. It is relevant to the question of how the body of the person who died on Nikumaroro would have decayed and been dismembered by crabs native to the island. The bones that were missing from the partial skeleton found in 1940 were presumably carried off by giant coconut crabs (Birgus latro). To conduct an efficient search for those bones, if they still exist, we need to know where to look.


During the Niku IIII (2001) expedition, our forensic anthropologist, Dr. Karen Burns, laid out a lamb shoulder on Nikumaroro and documented its deterioration with twice-daily visits to the site. The entire subject – roughly five pounds of flesh and bones – disappeared in the course of five days. See "A Moveable Feast" for more details and photos.

Coconut crabs were observed at the site on several occasions, as well as numerous smaller strawberry land hermit crabs (Coenobita perlatus). What is not known, and is apparently unknown to the scientific community at large, is exactly what coconut crabs do with bones when they carry them away. Do they take them down into their burrows? Do they carry them for some distance and then drop them? Do they consume them bit by bit? No one knows.


Dr. Karen Burns ran the most recent experiment during Niku V (2007) to try to track what happens to the bones of a decaying organism on Niku.