MAASTRICHT. Dutch YouTuber Emile Beuker recently posted a short film on his video channel Finding stuff. It showed piglets that he had discovered during a dive in the Stootersplas in North Holland. Dead piglets in cages under water. What appeared to be the case? Forensic research is being carried out by Maastricht University. Social media were swamped with threats directed at the scientist.
It wasn't the first time that a video of caged piglets was put online. A university of applied sciences student of forensic sciences who had in the past participated in the research of external PhD candidate Marco Pot, shared a short video on YouTube in the summer of 2018. In it, she explained that the dead piglets were used to model the decomposition of infants and young children, so that it would become possible to establish the time of death of small bodies found in water with greater accuracy.
Because until now, this is still a great mystery, says Pot, who studied Economics, became an officer for the fire department and grew more and more interested in diving. He set up his own forensic diving programme and decided to do further research on an academic level in underwater forensics (he is doing his PhD with Wilma Duijst, appointed to the endowed chair of Forensic Medicine and Criminal Health Law at Maastricht University). “If we find a body in the open air, we know what we have to look for: discolouration, has the skin started to loosen or not, can you detect flies or maggots, et cetera. But there is no such model for under water.”
He focuses specifically on infants. “That is why we chose piglets. The animals died a natural death and are from an organic farm. The farmer donates them to science. Otherwise they would be taken to a carcass destructor plant.”
People who are not familiar with the context, may be shocked by the find made by the YouTuber, but according to Pot it is absolutely clear that forensic research is being done in the pond. “The cages are accompanied with signs with explanations and telephone numbers.”
The reactions on social media were at times downright threatening (“We ourselves should be held under water with the piglets,” says Pot), but most people were scornful because of the fact that the experiment is taking place in water used for swimming. “Swimming in bodily juices is not something to be happy about,” was one reaction on YouTube.
Pot: “It is safe, it won't make you ill and we do have the approval of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority; we work at a depth of eleven metres and a hundred metres from the shore. We monitor such things as the pH and oxygen levels, both by the piglets and in the immediate environment, to see whether there are adverse consequences; as of yet, such have not been found.”
Cages with piglets are lowered into the water twice a year. “There is a summer and a winter period. We monitor decomposition twice a week, and take photographs and notes.”
What strikes Pot in particular is the fact that some animals float and others remain on the bottom. “How is that possible? We don't know yet, but it is an important discovery, because until now ‘work’ was done on floating bodies that washed ashore. But there are possibly bodies of missing children and babies that have sunken to the bottom.” The research is socially important, Pot emphasises. The more knowledge, the greater the chances of detection.