The Outside/In[box]: How long does it take a dead squirrel to decompose?
Every other Friday, the Outside/In podcast team answers one listener question about the natural world.
And on National Squirrel Appreciation Day , we're answering the squirrel-related question we found in our Outside/In[box] from Nicolas Ménard-Guy:
“This summer I found a dead squirrel in my yard. I buried it in a shallow grave, in a solemn ceremony. I'm wondering how long it'll take for it to decompose. Here are the conditions: I live in Montréal, Canada; my soil is poor but is quite humid; I buried it about six inches deep; I made him a Christian cross using chopsticks. Thank you."
While this may seem like a rather ghoulish question to be answering on National Squirrel Appreciation Day, we believe that squirrel death is just another part of squirrel life.
So we spoke to Sibyl Bucheli, a researcher at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility at Sam Houston State University. Sibyl, who's done extensive research on the decomposition of animals and humans, says that bodies break down in two ways. One is from the inside out.
"Your bacteria in your body," Sibyl says, "start to take over because there's no more immune system to stop that."
Plus, your own digestive juices in the stomach help speed things along. The second way bodies break down is from the outside in (get it?), the body gets eaten by insects and animals like vultures, raccoons, and even house cats.
So, did Nicolas prevent "outside in" decomposition by burying the squirrel six inches deep?
Sibyl says probably not. Six inches isn’t very deep, so other animals could have dug the squirrel carcass up. And even if they didn’t, the appropriately named coffin fly could have gotten to it.
"They're one of the few flies that are not stopped by burial," Sibyl says. "They would lay their eggs and then the larvae would hatch and they would feed on the squirrel."
There are also worms and millipedes in the soil that can feed on decomposing animals, and these insects bring additional bacteria that feed on them too.
"It's beautiful, it's recycling," Sibyl says.
Sibyl says as long as the weather is warm enough (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit), Nicolas's squirrel could have decomposed in as little as two weeks, or even one week if there were ample bacteria in the soil.
Since Nicolas found and buried the squirrel last summer, it's probably safe to assume that it's gone by now. But, according to Sibyl, the only real way to know is to dig it up.
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