Wednesday, 6 June 2018


Evening all,

If you haven't yet eaten, you might want to leave this post for later.

I thought it might be useful to cover a few facts about decomposition, especially as some commentators appear to be working from a textbook written in 1534. By a lunatic.

Decomposition is basically a combination of two processes going on side by side.

The first is a process called Autolysis. In effect, this means that the body starts to digest itself, when enzymes inside the cell cause the cell to break down.

The second is called putrefaction and this is the effect on the tissues of bacteria, which rather handily we carry around in our gut.

The rate of decomposition can be affected by a number of factors, especially heat - heat will generally speed things up, unless we are talking hot enough to destroy the bacteria or enzymes.

Decomposition starts from the moment of death. 

Now - let's park that there for a moment.

How do cadaver dogs detect death? Well, fairly obviously, they smell it. How does smell work? There is an area inside the nose which contains specialised receptor cells. It is covered in mucus. When we draw air through the nose, either by breathing in or by sniffing, we draw it across this area of mucus which traps the odour molecules and dissolves them, so that they come into contact with the receptor cells.

So in order for a product to be capable of delivering a smell, it must be able to deliver into the air molecules which can be drawn into the nose. Usually this happens by a process of evaporation, where 'volatile' products are given off. When we talk about volatility we mean the readiness with which particles will evaporate so they can be carried in the air.

When bacteria break down proteins, they cause the production of what are referred to as 'volatile amines'. These amines readily evaporate and so can reach the special receptors in the nose.

Cadaverine and putrescine are examples of volatile amines produced in this way and they have a characteristic odour which we associate with decomposition.

So this is how it goes:

Protein + Bacteria -> volatile amines -> decomposition smell

This starts to happen soon after death. We know that it does not take a long time before dogs can detect the presence of these amines and that within 2 hours or so they can detect the amines with great accuracy.

Now - a certain blogger discovered a photograph of purified cadaverine. In it's purified form, it is an oily substance. 

Most people will understand that to purify a compound requires processes. In the case of cadaverine it involves extracting the molecule by adding a solvent, then distilling the resulting mixture and collecting the fraction with a specific boiling point. It requires high heat. It requires equipment. It requires solvents.

Please trust me when I say it does not ooze out of the pores of a dead body, contaminating the ground and delivering an ''oily'' or ''syrupy'' sheen to the body, like a corpse dipped in Ambre Solaire.

If you take a fresh corpse, with an intact skin, and leave it an hour, it will not have fractionated it's own cadaverine and coated itself with it. The bacteria in it's gut will have broken down some of the proteins and produced small amounts,released as a gas because it is VOLATILE.

I am sure most of you knew all that already. Sadly, some people just can't seem to grasp it, but seriously I have heard enough nonsense about syrupy corpses to last a lifetime 


  1. Evening NT 🙂
    Really informative posts, and some great comments too. I think the science side of things is fascinating, not least because I'm one of those who knows science relies on proven fact, something which escapes some people - and not just in this case lol.
    It's also fascinating that, paired with what so many of us suspect to be true - and that usually is an indication of its likelihood, though not so sciency - the McCanns quite literally look like the luckiest people on earth. I think they call it sod's law, or my good old grandfather did anyway. Some call it conspiracy, obviously, or anything that suits their wild theories - "What is this you assault my eyes with?! Facts? Pfft, be gone, pro!" 😃
    Anyway, understanding the science 'speak' has never been a strong point of mine so it's great to get your breakdowns.
    Sharing 🙂

    1. Evening Sade :D

      Glad it's informative - if I wander off into my own little world just tell me to shut up. It's just really nice to have an intelligent readership after so many years of catering to people who were largely as thick as a whale pie

    2. A whale pie lol! Is that thicker than a whale in a bread roll? Depends on the pastry thickness I suppose.

      One thing I've seen a lot is that discussions like this, whether on the forensics or the Portuguese law/court proceedings - basically anything that simply cannot be contested (but they try, oh how they try!) - is that it terrifies them, those who either need to defend the indefensible or those that can't bear to admit they got something wrong. That's where the lunacy comes in, it's the only thing they can rely on.
      I'm still undecided as to whether it's a form of intelligence on their part - managing to convince even one person that they have the slightest clue what they're talking about - or if it's only the lack of, from those who lap it up so eagerly.

      At least when the aliens come, they'll see there were a few brain cells on earth.
      Making history here 😃

  2. Hi NT, thanks for this succinct and informative blog. A macabre subject, but a massively important one for anybody wanting to (or pretending to), understand how the dogs work. I'll jump straight to the (ludicrous) claims that you quite rightly highlighted as false, that a decaying body produces cadaver oils. There are 5 basic stages of decomposition.

    1. Fresh - the body will show very few signs of decomposition, the odour given off will be undetectable to humans. Some animals (pets etc), may show an interest, and even react as if the person were still alive. Correctly trained cadaver dogs - as Eddie was, will react from some distance.

    2. Bloated. When the body inflates due to gases produced from decomposition. At this stage, the smell given off will be detectable by humans, and cadaver dogs from a much further distance than the 1st stage.

    3. Decay. At this stage the body collapses as gases escape. The putrefaction odour, at this stage is extremely powerful, and as you'd expect, can be detected by both humans and dogs from a sizeable distance.

    4. Liquefaction. We're way beyond the length of time Madeleine's body would have had to have been in situ, to reach this stage - certainly in the apartment. Liquefaction only takes place around the month mark, and is a result of liquids created during the decay process, seeping into the environment.

    5. Dry or Skeletal. Self explanatory really.

    So, no mention of 'cadaver oils' or fluid of any kind having any bearing whatsoever on any discussion regarding this case.

    If I could move on (I don't want to turn this into War and Peace, there is nothing to be gained from using every word in the dictionary, in a sometimes, seemingly randomly selected order), onto the topic of scent pooling. I feel this is important, as it appears there are a few scratch and sniff, whiff myths being published - not here I hasten to add.

    You yourself have stated that the target odour of a dead body that Eddie has been trained to alert to, is in fact airborne, and despite the feeble attempts to mock what you say, you're absolutely correct.

    Whilst a decomposing body is in situ, the odour given off will tend to form a scent pool over the remains - as you'd expect, right. However, once a body has been removed, as Madeleine's clearly was, that 'scent pool' will move, depending upon airflow through the apartment (ah the whooshings), and air displacement due to movement. It is quite possible that although Eddie's alerts (those not corroborated by Keela), whilst signalling to an area where a body may have been, wouldn't necessarily be to the exact spot. As confirmed by Martin Grime himself:

    "What we have to be able to understand in a situation such as this is in a hot climate with the apartment being closed down, the scent will build up in a particular area. If there isn't a scent source in here, i.e. a physical article where the scent is emitting from, any scent residue will collect in a particular place due to the air movement of the flat, the apartment and what I would say in this case, is that there is enough scent in that area there for him to give me a bark indication but the source may not be in that cupboard, the source may well be in this room somewhere else, but the air is actually pushing into that corner. But *strong indication and I would say its positive for things that he is trained to find, which will be part of a separate debrief."

  3. Good post on an interesting and often misunderstood subject. The time it takes for a body to emit cadaver odour enough for a trained dog to detect it is not an exact science and is likely to vary for the variety of reasons that you mention. A further factor will be the age of the person and their physical size. Also important is the 'nose' of the particular dog. So the figure of 1.5 hours that is often given as the time necessary for a body to be in situ for the odour to be detectable is just a 'ball park' one .... less time is possible.

    P.S. When I was a practising nurse I can truthfully say that I (and a few other nurses I've have met have found the same) could often 'smell' death almost immediately ... the scent is sickly sweet, something like the perfume of freesia flowers. I never encountered it in any circumstances unrelated to a death in the vicinity.

    1. It's very interesting to hear that, because that has been my experience too - I'm not a nurse but I experience the same thing, especially where specific pathogens are concerned; one in particular I always describe as smelling like wet cardboard, and I would recognise it anywhere.

    2. That is correct. Lesly I have similarly 'smelled' what can only be described as death while working.

  4. Hello. Yes, more good sense from NT. No, please don't feel you're getting close to too much depth.

    On the Verdi thing from the last post: NT has already given the broad picture. I used the word "stalking" advisedly. What happened was that within minutes of NT posting - at all hours, as some of us did - Verdi would appear with an unpleasant post. It was creepy because it could be two in the morning and yet Verdi would suddenly be out there, just like a spider rushing out onto a web.

    It was also very boring because Verdi really isn't very bright, can't express herself on paper and has a tremendous inferiority complex, most evidenced when someone made a post describing thinking deeply about the McCann case while ski-ing with his family. This sent her absolutely berserk with rage and twisted envy and thereafter she began slagging him off too.

    It was against this bizarre yet somehow leaden background of angry noise that one tried to read NT's posts.

    In the end all the regular posters refused to respond to her as being beyond reach and she slunk away - to turn up on the Pit and rise effortlessly to being one of its leading intellectuals!

    1. The bit I remember most was her spluttering insistence that I was turning people against her, or some similarly meaningless complaint, despite the fact that I had studiously ignored her for two years and never responded to a single post :))

    2. Good morning, GB

      Thank you so much for your very informative post.

      “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made" - Groucho Marx (Verdi’s signature quote).

      Have a good day.


  5. I haven't got anything to add to this post but it was so interesting to read the science and other people's experiences with the deceased and the instant smell of death, I've read about this smell of flowers but no idea where I read it.


  6. Peter Mac And Cheese7 June 2018 at 16:42

    Been lucky so far not to have ever smelled the stench of death, but a Beautiful South lyric has always stayed with me "It's like the stench of roasted lamb upon your father's breath"

  7. If anyone can bear to read any more about death and decay the following two items are very interesting, yes I know .. one from the Daily Mail no less!

    In fact I think that it could be from the Daily Mail article that the idea of SYRUP may have come from. This because it contains a small section on a process of dealing with bodies which may have a place in the future:


    Dissolving dead bodies to create a brown, foul-smelling syrup may sound gruesome, but that’s exactly what some people are hoping to happen to them once they pass away.

    The process is called alkaline hydrolysis and was developed more than two decades ago to get rid of animal carcasses. It’s a more efficient and environmentally-friendly of getting rid of dead bodies, according to scientists.

    Alkaline hydrolysis uses lye, 300°C heat and huge amounts of pressure to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that look similar to pressure cookers.

    The process involves submerging the body in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide, which is then pressurised and heated for two-and-a-half to three hours.

    This leaves a green-brown tinted liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts and soft, porous white bone remains which are easily crushed.

    Because of its environmental advantages, some in the funeral industry say it could someday rival burial and cremation.

    It also eliminates concerns about crematorium emissions, including carbon dioxide, which can be released into the air as part of the process.

    The Processes of Death and Decomposition


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