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Missing feet

Scientists solve a gruesome mystery

Carrie Cole/Getty Images

In August 2007, a young girl found a size 12 running shoe with a right foot inside it washed up on a beach in British Columbia, says Erika Engelhaupt in National Geographic. The Canadian police called the discovery of the apparently severed foot “a million to one shot”. But over the next 12 years, 21 feet were found on the shores of the Salish Sea. With the exception of one in a hiking boot, all were in trainers. Was a serial killer at work? Were they the remains of migrants trapped in shipping containers? The police were none the wiser. But science has gradually provided answers.

The flesh on the feet was covered in adipocere, a waxy tissue typically found on corpses that have been sunk for months or years. But why were feet the only remains? Canadian police researched the effects of seawater on decomposing bodies (using pigs, not humans). It revealed that crabs and lobsters “can skeletonise a carcass in less than four days”, preferring soft pickings such as the connective tissue of ankle joints. Once nibbled away from the leg, the feet became buoyant thanks to lightweight foam and air bubbles in the heels of trainers.

And to whom did the feet belong? Coroners have used DNA to link nine of them to seven people. Most had been missing for at least a year, and one hadn’t been seen since 1985. One woman was seen jumping off a bridge in an assumed suicide, and police haven’t ruled out homicide in the case of a young man whose foot was found in 2019. But a human identification specialist who worked on the case is adamant: “Please don’t call them severed feet.” It was nature, not a blade, that separated them from their owners.

Read the full article here.