Postmortem Changes of Human Bodies on the Bathyal Sea Floor—Two Cases of Aircraft Accidents Above the Open Sea


  • Thomas K Dumser Dr.Med.,

    1. Department of Forensic Medicine and Medical Investigation of Aircraft Accidents, German Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine, P.O. Box 1264/KFL, D-82242 Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany.
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  • Michael Türkay Dr.Phil. Nat.

    1. Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Senckenberganlage 25, D-60325 Frankfurt/Main, Germany.
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Additional information and reprint requests:
Thomas K. Dumser, Dr.Med.
German Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine
Flugmedizinisches Institut der Lufwaffe
Abt. Ruf
Postfach 1264/KFL
D-82242 Fürstenfeldbruck


Abstract:  Forensic taphonomy in the marine context recently received growing attention. However, only limited information is available about the fate of human bodies at greater sea depth. Following two fatal aircraft accidents (west of Namibia, south of Sicily) human remains were recovered from a depth of 540–580 m (both cases) after 3 months (Namibia)/34 days (Sicily). In the Namibia case fully skeletonized bones were lifted. In the Sicily case a complete, dressed body was found exhibiting a partially skeletonized skull, starting adipocere formation and pink teeth. The rate and mode of decomposition of human bodies in the deep sea varies considerably and is mainly influenced by the local faunal composition. Of special relevance for the understanding of both cases was the oceanographic observation that the highly efficient necrophageous lyssianassids are abundant off Namibia but are rare in the Mediterranean, emphasizing the importance of collaboration of forensic and marine scientists in such case work.