Lauren Pharr Parks ’02: A Love of Science Uncovers the Impact of Vultures

By Max Maddock
About four minutes into her 2017 TEDx talk, Dr. Lauren Pharr Parks ’02 jokes that if you’re ever on a bad first date, you might reference her TED talk and likely never have to worry about the potential suitor giving you another call. It’s not because her talk isn’t interesting. After all, it has nearly a million and a half views on
You see, Parks is a forensic anthropologist or a person who specializes in the analysis of human skeletal remains. A forensic anthropologist’s work can help determine the identity of a person, how they died, and how long ago they died. These days, with crime scene investigation shows dominating television, most people are somewhat familiar with this kind of work. 

Parks’ particular area of focus is the study of vultures and how they scavenge. During her Ph.D. study of vulture behavior at Louisiana State University, she had a lightbulb moment: What if vulture scavenging could play a key role in missing persons cases?

Indeed, for the past seven years, Parks has been sought out as an expert by state and federal authorities to determine whether the remains found at a crime scene were scavenged by vultures. If they have, that can skew what an investigator thinks may be the estimated time of death. Parks’ expertise helps them better determine if a body has been in a spot for weeks or merely hours and how that fits with the other facts of a case. In some instances, her testimony has been a crucial element, including in two death penalty cases.

An Early Interest in Science 

“When I was a child, my aunt gave me a microscope,” Parks remembered. “It came with slides, and I would look at bugs’ wings and leaves. I thought it was fascinating. It was one of my favorite toys.” 

At Hutchison, Parks cultivated her love of science, but also her interest in art. She fondly recalled biology teacher Betty Stimbert and art teacher Gwen English. Her chemistry teacher at the time, Karen Irving, helped her with a project for the Shelby County Science Fair that won an award. In the experiment, Parks hypothesized whether sodium polyacrylate, the substance that helps absorb liquid in diapers, could be used as a fire retardant. She applied it to cloth and popsicle sticks and tested the burn rate.

“Actually, the experiment failed,” Parks admitted. “At the science fair, the judges would ask, ‘Did your experiment work?’ When I said that it didn’t, they commented that I was brave to say that. That experience helped me.”

In 2002, when she matriculated to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Parks said she was torn between taking an artistic path in interior design or gravitating toward the sciences. She was a painter and sold some of her artwork, but she enjoyed biology classes and considered working toward medical school. She also was intrigued by UT’s Anthropology Research Facility, commonly known as The Body Farm. Established in 1972, it was the first research and training facility for the study of human remains. Donated bodies are used by students to learn about excavation, decomposition, examination of teeth and bones, documentation, and other aspects of forensic anthropology.

The television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation first premiered in 2000, and by 2002, when Parks started college, it was the most-watched show on American television. “That put forensic science smack dab in the forefront,” Parks said. It wasn’t the popularity of the show that had hooked her though. “I enjoyed studying skeletons, and they have a large skeletal collection at UT,” she said. “I got into anthropology because UT has one of the best anthropology programs in the country.”

After UT, Parks decided to continue her work in anthropology by enrolling in a master’s program at Louisiana State University. When she arrived, she told her advisors she wanted to study decomposition. Their response was, “Are you sure?” Parks often dresses stylishly and doesn’t necessarily convey the part of a field anthropologist who digs in the dirt. So they tested her.

“To make sure that I was ready, my advisors sent me to this field by a prison in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, and they gave me three little pig carcasses,” Parks said. “My advisors said, ‘You have to sit with these pigs all day until they’re gone, collect bugs every hour, and take photographs.’ When I showed up, I wore a sundress. I was a sorority girl at UT. I didn’t know. But I did it. I was out there from morning until sunset.”
Left: Parks photographing a carcass used to attract vultures. Right: Parks feeding vultures she housed in preparation for tagging.

Because it was so hot, the pigs decomposed quickly, Parks said. She admitted she was more bothered by huge spiders she had seen in the nearby woods than by observing the pigs. She also recalled an earlier experience that may have helped: in 10th grade at Hutchison, her class had dissected a piglet. “I remember thinking, ‘Cutting open the pig is either going to be really scary, or it’s going to be okay.’ It was okay.”

Her master’s work after that test focused on how concealment of a body affects decomposition.

Captivated... by Vultures?

Parks completed her master’s in two and a half years but decided to continue her studies at the doctoral level at LSU. She knew she wanted to do something with animals and GPS tracking. It was 2009, and a new research facility called the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) had just opened. It was similar to The Body Farm at UT in Knoxville. What FARF didn’t anticipate, however, was the presence of vultures disturbing the bodies used for research. That had not happened at UT.

“They said, ‘We need someone to come study these birds.’” Parks explained. “I knew it was an area that was under-researched, so I went there to study the vultures and got government funding to GPS track them. I was at the right place at the right time.”

Her initial funding was from the National Science Foundation. Parks was using GPS transmitters to measure the altitude of the birds, which are so large that they usually soar at high altitudes. This is why you often see vultures coasting in circles high above an area. “I was looking to see if the altitude data could be used to isolate where the birds are scavenging and then figure out what environmental factors are associated with their scavenging.”

Because the transmitters were so expensive, Parks applied to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) for additional funding. “They wrote back and said, ‘Cool study, but we don’t care where the birds are scavenging. We want to know, have they scavenged?’ ” The reply surprised Parks and shifted her focus.

The NIJ, it seems, was primarily concerned about the impact vultures could have on a body at a crime scene. Next, she created a large trap to capture the vultures. The vultures soon figured out it was a trap, so Parks enlisted her dad, an outdoorsman, to help her build a better trap. Once she trapped them, she had to tag them. Because vultures are large and not particularly pleasant birds, she asked a number of people to help. “It took two grown men holding them down,” she described. “It was scary. But I had spent so much time and money. I told myself, ‘I’ve just got to do it and work through it.’ ” She placed wing tags on 52 vultures and six of these birds also received GPS transmitters.

“I emailed my advisor and said, ‘I have a list of vulture scavenging traits. I think everything we know about decomposition is wrong.’”

As Parks explained in her dissertation, the previous forensic literature “gave much focus to insect scavengers with little attention paid to animal and avian scavengers.”

“If you read stories such as, ‘Memphis Light, Gas & Water found a body in the bushes when they were cleaning up some power lines,’ the thought is, if you have bones, they’ve been there for a year or a very long time,” Parks explained. “But the birds can go in and scavenge a body within five hours. The goal is to recognize whether vultures have been on a body and then refine the timeline for that. Then law enforcement can search through missing persons files.”

Parks tagging a vulture’s wing and success!

Her Ph.D. took seven years, and by the end, Parks had defined 16 traits that could be used to identify vulture-scavenged remains, which she now employs to help law enforcement determine whether a body has been visited by vultures. Her expert opinion can change the way a case is being looked at.

She has aided in cases in Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, New York, and even Brazil, although remotely in that instance. Since COVID, much of her work is now handled by looking at photos that have been sent to her from crime scenes. She’s also helping to educate people through talks with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Keeping It Simple

One fun fact: in 2013, while Parks was at FARF conducting her research, she appeared on a television show called Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, which aired on the History Channel. The show followed the affable comedian as he “explores the country, immersing himself in different lifestyles, jobs, and hobbies.” Parks appeared in the season 3 episode titled “Larry Sees Dead People.” While some of the show’s content may not be for the squeamish, Larry has a down-home way of explaining a topic that makes it—at times—funny.

It may seem like an obvious question, but it had to be asked—how does Parks describe her work at a cocktail party without getting too gruesome? “I just say I’m a forensic consultant, and I usually say I study bones,” she answered without hesitation.

Parks with her daughter, Patty Mae ’36, when she visited with Hutchison’s junior kindergarteners.

When Parks heard that her daughter’s junior kindergarten class was learning about bones, fossils, and dinosaurs, she was happy to give Patty Mae ’36 and her classmates a glimpse of her work and how it is related to their studies. She kept it simply to the study of animal bones, rather than talking about vultures or scavenging.

“My collection is huge, so I have all sorts of animals. I would pull out an animal skull and ask, ‘What is this?,’ and they thought a horse skull was a dinosaur.” The girls enjoyed observing the bones, at least until Parks pulled out the somewhat scary looking (at least to a JK-er!) alligator gar skull, a freshwater fish with a broad snout and long, sharp teeth! But then they were fascinated.

One thing the girls learned was the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Looking at the skulls that Parks brought in gave them the opportunity to determine what each animal ate based on the shape of their teeth. “I think they liked it because it was unexpected, it was a surprise. It’s a little scary, but not too scary.”

Junior kindergarteners analyze skulls from Parks’ collection.

In addition to the fun of speaking to junior kindergarteners or Larry the Cable Guy, Parks is an accomplished researcher, speaker, academic writer, and teacher. She’s been invited to speak to a number of organizations, presented at conferences continuously since 2010, and authored or coauthored numerous peer-reviewed articles. In 2021, she was named a Fellow by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the top honor for the premier society in her industry. “You are required to submit a certain number of case reports and peer-reviewed articles and volunteer in order to qualify to go under review. I worked on that for about 10 years.”

The AAFS has invited her to be a guest teacher next year at the Student Academy, an educational program for high school students. Parks also has mentored a Hutchison student in the Hutchison Leads program about education and careers in forensic science.

In thinking about all her work to date, Parks said there are often a number of failures for every one success. “That includes everything from applying for grants to any of my projects. It’s part of the game. You just have to keep thinking, ‘Okay, something good is coming along.’ You have to keep on trucking.”

“Sometimes I think maybe I should hang up my hat with the forensic science stuff. And then I’ll get a big case or opportunity and it just revs my engine, and I am right back. With gusto.”

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