The discovery of a human foot on a Florida beach New Year's Day brought to mind the well-publicized spate of shoe-clad feet that have washed up in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, but experts say the grisly cases aren't as mysterious as they may seem.
Investigators are baffled over the identity of the foot, with one law enforcement source calling the finding "very unusual," and some residents suspecting a sinister scenario. But medical experts say the foot, found inside a shoe on Peck Lake Beach in Martin County, is likely that of a drowning victim, as are several detached feet discovered along the coasts of Canada and Washington state in recent years. There's a simple explanation for how feet wash up on shore, said one former coroner.
"If somebody disappears in the water for whatever reason – suicide, homicide, accidental drowning, boat or plane crashes – the body decomposes after a period of time," said Dr. Michael Baden, who served as New York City's Chief Medical Examiner.
While even clothed bodies don't last long in the sea, feet inside shoes can last for years in the ocean.
"The bones start separating naturally as the soft tissue deteriorates," Baden said. "And when it comes to the feet, the shoes can really keep those 26 bones [that make up each foot] together. Shoes and sneakers tend to be sturdy enough that they can persist for years and decades and they will protect whatever is inside them."
Feet can also detach following a trauma, like a plane crash or boat accident, but Baden said the separation is most likely due to natural decomposition. Several factors contribute to the rate of decomposition, he said, including water temperature and fish activity.
Christine Weiss, spokeswoman for the Martin County Sheriff's Department, told FoxNews.com Wednesday that investigators have not yet solved the mystery behind the foot found in Florida, which was discovered by a woman walking along the beach on New Year's Day. Weiss said an identical shoe was discovered but contained no foot. She said the body of a woman who was likely murdered washed ashore shortly after but was not a match for the feet. She also said that a man who recently lost his foot in a boating accident contacted authorities but it was determined the foot did not belong to him either.
Weiss said investigators are now focusing on a missing boater who disappeared Jan. 19 from Palm Beach County, outside of Martin County's jurisdiction. That man's body has not yet been found, and Weiss said authorities are examining DNA from his hair brush and comparing it with DNA taken from the foot.
Since 2007, at least 14 human feet clad in shoes have been found on or near beaches in Washington state and British Columbia. The strange discoveries have led to theories involving a serial killer and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Only a few of the feet to wash ashore in Canada and Washington in recent years have been identified. Baden dismissed both theories
"They could tell from the footwear whether it’s Asian," Baden said. "It’s possible that 30 shoes might wash over but not with bones in them. It sounds more like a boating accident, with possibly several victims decomposing in the same water temperature."