Lake Mead Bodies May Have Turned Into Soapy Substance: Forensic Scientist

The bodies discovered in Lake Mead may have turned into a soapy substance, a forensic scientist said.

Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam in Nevada and Arizona, is rapidly evaporating because of a mega-drought. Water levels are now the lowest they have been since 1937. And, before now, the lake had been concealing a multitude of human remains.

Since May, four sets of human remains have been found in the lake. Investigations are underway into all the remains. One set of remains, discovered inside a barrel, appears to be that of a shooting victim.

Police believe the body is from the late 1970s. It has not been confirmed how long the other remains have been concealed within the depths of the lake.

The state the bodies were found in is unclear, however. Melissa Connor, a forensic anthropology professor at Colorado Mesa University, said they may have turned into a "soap-like consistency known as adipocere."

Lake mead
Four sets of human remains have been found in Lake Mead as it continues to dry up. CrackerClips/Getty

"My guess is that most of the remains found to date, if recent, may be some combination of adipocere and skeleton," she told Newsweek. "There are also historic and prehistoric sites under Lake Mead, and if burials associated with those sites washed out, they would most likely be totally skeletal."

Their condition depends on the environment within Lake Mead, Connor said. "A lot depends on where in the lake a body is deposited, and what lake. Lake environments are in layers, with the deepest being very cold and having few scavengers."

She continued, "Lake temperatures warm towards the surface, allowing bacteria in a fresh body to be active and create gas in the body. If bloated and unweighted, and in a level in the thermocline where the water isn't really cold, a body will bob to the top as the gas builds up, two to four days or so depending on temp. Then the flies go to work laying eggs, the maggots start eating the remains, and parts will drop off and sink as they disarticulate."

This may not be the case with Lake Mead, as the human remains appear to have been hidden for decades.

Scavengers such as shrimp, crabs and fish can help skeletonize a body or body parts in the water, Connor said. Lake Mead is home to an abundance of fish, including the Razorback sucker fish, but it is not clear whether it would have scavenged on the bodies.

Connor highlighted the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes freighter that sank in 1975, as an example.

Lake Superior, where the ship sank, has a reputation for not revealing the dead bodies that surely lie deep within it. Seamen from the lake's shipwrecks are still thought to be lying on the lake's floor, as it is so deep and cold.

Cold, deep temperatures slow the bloating process down, meaning bodies will not appear on the surface. This may have been the case with Lake Mead.

"If the body is deep enough, in [a part of the lake too cold] for scavenging fish or shellfish, and the bacteria in the fresh body died, the body is probably pretty well preserved," Connor said.