It seems deer have a bone to pick with humans.
Scientists at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, which oversees land in San Marcos that is used to observe how human bodies decompose in the wild, spotted one deer (or possibly two different ones) picking up a human rib bone with its mouth and casually gnawing on it, “extending from the side of the mouth like a cigar,” they wrote in a recently published paper.
They realized they were looking at something unusual — in fact, it was “the first known evidence of a white-tailed deer scavenging human bones,” three Texas State scientists wrote in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
The focus at the Forensic Anthropology Center is usually on the human bodies themselves, but the center decided this discovery was too intriguing not to share.
“While most forensic anthropologist and taphonomists are aware that carnivorous non-human animals chew on and consume human bones, the fact that ungulate (a.k.a. hoofed) species also gnaw on human bone is not as widely recognized,” they wrote.
The body, which had been donated for science, was placed in the university’s land in July 2014. Six months later, when all that remained of the body was a skeleton, the scientists saw the deer with the rib bone on its mouth. They saw a deer gnawing on another rib bone eight days later.
Many wild animals (but not deer) are known to scavenge human remains on Texas State’s 26 acres of land. Scientists use their observations on human decomposition to help people like medical examiners who are trying to determine, for example, if trauma to a body was caused by a weapon or a raccoon.
“Researchers have observed deer scavenging nonhuman bone many times in the past, but this is the first time we have observed it with human bones thanks to the unique research happening at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University,” said one of the scientists, Lauren Meckel. “We were surprised only because we see the deer so often in the photos from our motion-sensored cameras. Usually they walk around the skeleton and sniff it a few times, but never had we seen the deer actually pick up one of the bones.”