Science - September 17, 2009

John smells bad, very bad

Let’s call him John. John is the fourteenth deer rotting away for the sake of education in the Ooij Polder. Unknown to him, John plays the leading role in Prof. Marcel Dicke’s forensic entomology lecture.

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The Wageningen entomologist will give his lecture at the end of this month in the Arnhem City High School (Stedelijk Gymnasium Arnhem). It will be broadcasted live to the whole country via internet (www.betavak-nlt.nl). Just once and for all, to promote the topic ‘Nature, Life and Technology’. Hmm... life. There isn’t much of this in John anymore. The deer left it behind in a traffic accident. That was the end of John. But a whole new life began then. The life after death, since ‘death begets life’. That’s the title of the education project (www.dooddoetleven.nl) of the ARK foundation and the national forest management (Staatsbosbeheer). The project highlights the importance of carcasses in nature. For this reason, there will always be the carcass of a deer in the premises of Staatsbosbeheer at the Ooijse Bandijk in the Ooij Polder in Nijmegen. Death, the beginning of new life.
Decomposed flesh
To prepare for Dicke’s lecture, the school’s fourth year class (4 VWO) is participating in  ‘An experiment with John’ today. ‘It’s about how to look at a dead body from a forensic researcher’s point of view’, explains lecturer and Wagenigen UR staff member Bram Winkelman. The students hold their breaths… because John smells bad, very bad. The carcass, placed in the polder exactly a week ago, is in an advanced state of decomposition. ‘What you smell, is the smell of decomposed flesh’, explains Winkelman with visible glee. ‘A carcass is simply a part of the food supply in nature’, was his message before that. ‘Who likes fruits? That’s food too.’
Ten thousand maggots
In the meantime, thousands of maggots wriggle about in the carcass. But that's nothing apparently; listen to this: ‘On Sunday, the carcass was white with maggots, perhaps ten thousands of them, but a day earlier, it was almost intact.’ That’s how fast nature can deal with carcasses. Gingerly, the students carry out some tests. They gather maggots and beetles and do soil analyses. What an incredible amount of life John has left behind!
Looking on in the background is Petra Naber from the Educational Institute of Wageningen UR. She has made the lesson possible as a member of the NLT-team. Wageningen University is a major partner of the NLT in promoting beta sciences among the youth. ‘We have developed four out of the twenty lesson modules, and four others are in the pipeline.’ A new NLT season always kicks off with a public lecture. It’s Wageningen’s turn this time. The lecture by Dicke can be followed on Tuesday 29 September between 2 pm and 3.30 pm. By then, John will be a thing of the past.

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