Extended story: Remains determined to be from black bears

Published 1:54 am Sunday, March 22, 2009

Speculation on whether the remains found north of Poplarville were in fact human proved to be well founded.

Upon closer inspection of the suspected feet and hands found near a signless road that lead to a gravel pit off of Baxterville Road, Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department investigators and Mississippi Bureau of Investigations Crime Scene personnel thought the remains should be checked out by a specialist. Chief Deputy Shane Tucker and Chief Investigator Donnie Saucier said there was speculation that they could be from an animal, but as of Friday they were still handling the case as though they were human remains.

Further inspection by the University of Southern Mississippi Department of Anthropology and Sociology determined that the bones were not human and were from three black bears, Pearl River County Coroner Derek Turnage said. Dr. Marie Danforth, a professor in the department of anthropology and Dr. Ed Jackson with the university’s department archeology both reviewed the bones. After Danforth determined they were not human, Jackson was able to identify them as being from three separate black bears.

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The investigation into the remains began late Wednesday night when a citizen walking his dog in the area came upon the remains, described to be in the final stages of decomposition and containing only minimal flesh. Turnage said multiple agencies came out to help in the investigation, including the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks; MBI Crime Lab, volunteer fire departments, Emergency Management and the Sheriff’s Department among them.

“It was a multi-agency effort,” Turnage said.

Danforth said the misinterpretation of black bear bones as human bones is quite common, especially when parts of the remains are missing. In this case, the claws were not part of the remains found, which made it harder to make the distinction. She said bears use their paws in dexterous ways to pick berries, similar to the function of a human hand.

Black bear feet also resemble those of humans, Danforth said. The confusion between the two is so common that the FBI has written a report to help people differentiate between the two. Danforth said usually animal bones are larger than human bones and there is also the absence of an opposable thumb. Still, there have been a number of cases where bear remains have been confused for human remains.

“You do need a specialist to tell the difference,” Danforth said. “It’s very well known in forensic anthropology that bear and human remains are very hard to distinguish.”

Turnage said the case has now been turned over to the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Black bears are listed as endangered species in Mississippi, according to http://msforestry.net/pdf/Black%20Bear.pdf.