Animal Scavenging and Scattering and the Implications for Documenting the Deaths of Undocumented Border Crossers in the Sonoran Desert*,†

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Abstract

Since 1998, over 5500 people have died while attempting to cross the U.S.–Mexico border without authorization. These deaths have primarily occured in the Arizona desert. Despite the high volume of deaths, little experimental work has been conducted on Sonoran Desert taphonomy. In this study, pig carcasses were used as proxies for human remains and placed in different depositional contexts (i.e., direct sunlight and shade) that replicate typical sites of migrant death. Decomposition was documented through daily site visits, motion-sensitive cameras and GIS mapping, while skeletal preservation was investigated through the collection of the remains and subsequent faunal analysis. Our results suggest that vultures and domestic dogs are underappreciated members of the Sonoran scavenging guild and may disperse skeletal remains and migrant possessions over 25 m from the site of death. The impact of scavengers and the desert environment on the decomposition process has significant implications for estimating death rates and identifying human remains along the Arizona/Mexico border.

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