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A multidisciplinary investigation of a corpse found at the Sea, with particular focus on the use of barnacles for the estimation of the time spent in water

Torrisi, M., Ingrassia, G.F., Vanaria, F., Coci, M., Magni, P. and Pomara, C. (2022) A multidisciplinary investigation of a corpse found at the Sea, with particular focus on the use of barnacles for the estimation of the time spent in water. In: 74th Annual Scientific Conference of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 21 - 25 February 2022, Seattle, Washington.


Learning Overview: The goal of this paper is to present the multidisciplinary investigation performed on a unknown corpse found in water. The corpse was in advanced state of decomposition and the study of barnacles led to the estimation of the Postmortem Interval (PMI).

Impact Statement: This presentation will impact the forensic community by informing attendees of the importance of a multidisciplinary forensic approach and the use of barnacles for PMI estimation.

Human remains can be found in water environments for multiple reasons such as accident, natural or mass disasters, homicide, and suicide. The characteristics of aquatic environments are many and varied and all unique in terms of biological, chemical, and physical properties. The decomposition process and the colonization of the remains are strictly related to these characteristics. As any other forensic medical investigation, when a corpse is recovered from an aquatic environment, primary tasks are the confirmation of the personal identification, the determination of the cause of death, and the estimation of the time since death (PMI).

To date, considering the difficulties in the evaluation of postmortem changes, several studies have suggested the use of aquatic organisms, such as macroinvertebrates and algae in both freshwater and saltwater environments, to aid in the estimation of the PMI. In particular, for cases that occurred in seawater, the analyses of the barnacles (Crustacea: Cirripedia) colonizing the remains and the clothes and the objects associated with it have proven to be able to provide important information both on the provenance of the corpse and the PMI. The present casework reports the multidisciplinary investigation performed on a corpse recovered in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. The corpse was found in an advanced stage of decay, partially skeletonized and dismembered, with diffuse adipocere. Goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera L.; Crustacea: Cirripedia: Pedunculata) were found colonizing the items connected with the corpse (a watch, a single sock, and a shoe), the teeth, the exposed bones, and, for the first time, were also observed attached directly on the corpse’s skin. A complete medicolegal investigation comprehensive consisting of a Computed Tomography (CT) scan and diatom-test allowed ascertainment of the cause of death by drowning, while the use of barnacles and oceanographical data were used to estimate the floating time and the journey traveled by the corpse. The DNA profile of the subject was uploaded in the official international databank; however, at present the identity of the subject remains unknown. Despite this case being still open, the multidisciplinary approach to this complex investigation should be used as a guideline for future similar cases.

Item Type: Conference Item
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Medical, Molecular and Forensic Sciences
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