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Watching a decomposing body move its limbs is ‘par for the course’

Published:04 September 2019

Bachelor of Science (Honours) student Alyson Jones pictured in the laboratory with skeletal remains.

Cairns mum Alyson Wilson flies thousands of kilometres every month so she can continue tracking the arm and leg movements of a ‘human donor’ in bushland at Australia’s body farm, on the outskirts of Sydney.

The body has been moving for 17 months and Alyson’s time-lapse camera has been recording all that time.

It’s believed that no-one else in the world is researching ‘post-mortem movement’ in this way.

“We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out,” she says.

“This knowledge could be significant in unexplained death investigations.”

Alyson needs to visit the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (known as AFTER) on a monthly basis, to change the camera batteries and download data.

Originally a Criminology graduate, Alyson started her unique project as a Medical Science undergraduate at CQUniversity.

She also took the opportunity to visit Mexico in January this year, to help classify Mayan-era skeletal remains at the archaeology laboratory at the ‘Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas’ in the city of Chiapa de Corzo.

Alyson is now continuing as a Bachelor of Science (Honours) student with CQUni and hopes to complete a PhD on her way to a career in forensic anthropology.

She had a confidence boost recently through publication of her initial undergraduate research findings in an international journal, in an article titled Evaluating the utility of time-lapse imaging in the estimation of post-mortem interval: An Australian case study.

An important factor in covering Alyson’s monthly travel costs has been support from the Errol & Berenice Payne 50th Anniversary Scholarship, valued at $5000 and arranged through CQUniversity.

Emeritus Professor Errol Payne was among the initial CQUni staff members. His wife Berenice has been a long-time Member of the Zonta Club of Rockhampton, which also supports annual academic prizes.

Their scholarship celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Queensland Institute of Technology (Capricornia) on 1 January 1967 which, for the first time, provided the opportunity for Central Queensland students to undertake tertiary studies within their communities.

CQUniversity’s Term 1, 2020, scholarships will be opening in November, with details via https://www.cqu.edu.au/courses/future-students/scholarships .