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The Strange Parallel Histories of Plant Science and Death Science

Botanists and forensic scientists developed the same theory in the late 19th century. They might have a lot to learn from each other, if they would talk to each other now.
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(Photo: desk006/Shutterstock)

(Photo: desk006/Shutterstock)

In forests, grasslands, and other landscapes all over the world, plant species replace one another all the time. (It's kind of like gentrification.) On Mount St. Helens, for example, prairie lupines were the first flowers to bloom after the volcano erupted in 1980. Those prairie lupines paved the way for grasses and trees. In the American Midwestern prairies, the composition of the grasses has been changing in a specific order, influenced by the humans living nearby.

The idea that plants move into landscapes in a logical order, like actors in a play, is called ecological succession. It's a well-known concept in biology. And it also happens to apply to the insects that come and lay their eggs in the rotting flesh of murder victims.

Ecological succession, as an idea, arose in parallel in ecology and forensics, a team of biologists write in a new essay in the Quarterly Review of Biology. It's the ultimate instance of "great minds think alike." In ecology, succession helps scientists guess what will happen after natural disasters and human development. In forensics, succession helps coroners determine people's time of death, by what insect species appear in their corpses.

In the late 1800s, forensic scientists would leave animal carcasses and stillborn fetuses around their university campuses, to check what—and when—insects arrived on each body.

Both fields originated in Europe in the late 1800s, when forensic scientists would do things like leave animal carcasses and stillborn fetuses around their university campuses, to check what—and when—insects arrived on each body. Meanwhile, plant scientists were setting up string-edged squares in the Nebraskan prairie and counting every species they found per square. "We found no evidence that either group was aware of the other's contributions, at least until the mid-1900s," the researchers write. The team includes a forensics scientist and entomologists from Canada and California.

Even now, there's little overlap between ecologists and forensic scientists, the team writes. It's emblematic of the hyper-specialization of science and medicine, which others have noted before. Yet plant and death scientists have much to learn from one another, the researchers argues.

Forensics could benefit from ecology's insights into how one species paves the way for another. On Mount St. Helens, researchers found that prairie lupines enrich the soil for the next generation of plants to grow. Forensics, on the other hand, tends to know which species follow one another, but not why.

Meanwhile, ecologists could learn from forensic scientists about the ecological succession that happens not only in crime scenes, but in the natural deaths of animals.

The first Western scientists thought of themselves as philosophers of nature, who could come up with theories to explain everything in the natural world. As scientists generated more knowledge, however, that became impossible. They had to specialize and plumb the depths of smaller fields. Perhaps a little more expansive thinking might help sometimes.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.