Written By Jess Alba.
Posted on October 4th, 2021.
Are your woods hiding any spooky secrets?
New research suggests that it is possible to use forest chemistry to locate missing human remains. However, more research needs to be done for this to be applied practically.
I was scrolling through Twitter one night when I came across this frightening tweet:
At first I thought there was no way this was true, even though this account claims to only tweet facts. Tree leaves grow in all shades of green for a variety of reasons, and I’ve never personally been able to look at a woodlot and pinpoint a tree of one species with noticeably darker leaves than those around it. Take a look at this forest, for example:
Can anyone really look at this view and say there’s a perceivable difference in leaf color, aside from where the sunlight hits?
But after thinking about it for a moment, I realized there could be some truth to this idea. Decomposing bodies of any organism, including humans, will add a rush of nutrients to the soil. Anyone with a house plant can testify that with more resources, like water, sunlight, and nutrients, plants will look more vibrant. Still, this just sounds too weird to be real.
I decided to do a Google search, and I learned that this is in fact a blooming area of study. Several websites like Wired, Science Daily, and New Scientist all have articles that go into more detail about the chemistry that gives this tweet credibility.
Essentially, living things are full of chemical substances like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. When those things die, these elements are recycled into other organisms. Fungi, insects, animals, and plants will all take what they can get, and within a few months hardly any remains will be left to tell the tale of what was once there. If nearby trees absorb enough nitrogen and other nutrients during this process, then it’s possible that this sudden influx of fertilizer will be reflected in their appearance, with a showing of rich, dark green leaves. So if someone were to go missing while on a hike or become the victim of a crime, we could locate their body by looking at canopy color from the air. This could save a lot of time and money in comparison to sending out a search and rescue team on foot.
It sounds simple enough, but the problem is that humans are not the only things that could die in the woods. If forests were barren and trees were starved for nutrients, then sure, one new body would probably leave a noticeable mark. But our forests are full of critters as small as mice and as big as black bears that live and die in them regularly (I myself have found three dead deer in the last two years while out hiking), so surely the decomposition of such large mammals complicates things. Not to mention, nutrients don’t all stay in one place. Carrion birds and scavengers would remove and consume a significant portion of a body in the woods, so no one tree is getting all of the available nitrogen. Is what’s left over really enough to cause a visible color change in the leaves?
Every article I found said this was all currently theoretical and wouldn’t be used in searches anytime soon. Research is being done on a small scale for now, like understanding the differences between human and animal decomposition and how that affects individual leaves. Future studies could include looking at signs of nutrient uptake in plants that we can’t necessarily see with the naked eye, like fluorescence.
For now, it’s safe to say that UberFacts probably over-simplified all of this for the sake of an eye-catching tweet. Should you happen to notice a tree in your woods that’s greener than the rest, odds are it doesn’t mean that anything tragic has happened there. If you go poking around you might see leftover signs of a deer, bear, or other large animal that died, but if you stumble across something spookier than that, don’t say I didn’t warn you!