Forensic entomology sheds light on investigation methods


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Posted: 6/17/2010


Equipped with latex gloves and masks, participants at Mississippi State University’s Intergenerational Summer Camp for basic entomology and plant ecology became forensic scientists for an hour.

The campers had the option of participating in a field demonstration to retrieve beetle and maggot specimens on deer carcasses placed in the woods adjacent to MSU’s Berryman Institute. The purpose was to demonstrate variations in insect populations visiting animal carcasses exposed to the environment for different lengths of time.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks provided the deer carcasses. The deer died of natural causes.

Campers listened to instructions from medical and veterinary entomologist Jerome Goddard of the MSU Extension Service and entomologist Wendy Varnado of the Mississippi Department of Health before heading to the demonstration.

Forensic science, or forensics, is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest within a legal setting, such as a court of law. Entomology is one of the fields to which forensics can be applied.

Forensic entomologists often can help legal authorities solve a case by identifying the species and life stages of insects that are found on human and animal remains. This information can help investigators determine when death occurred or the length of time after death, often referred to by medical personnel as the post-mortem interval.

"It takes an expert to establish a timeline for death and credibility of the evidence," Goddard said. "A forensic entomologist can verify what types of insects were present on the remains and precisely when they arrived. These insects give important clues to help determine the facts of a case and even solve the mystery of what happened."

Maggots, the larval stage of certain fly species, congregate at the natural openings and wounds on a dead body. For example, if a person died from a gunshot wound, the presence of maggots at that site might tip off investigators as to the cause of death, Goddard said.

"Of course, some of this stuff has been made popular by television shows such as ‘CSI’ and Patricia Cornwell’s novels," he said.

Determining cause of death is only one aspect of forensic entomology. This emerging discipline can be applied in other ways to help solve legal issues.

Forensic entomologists may examine cases that involve the presence of insects, such as those that damage structures. They also may be asked to testify about pest infestations of food, neglect in medical facilities and farming problems.

"People may want to sue someone for termite damage or if they find a cricket in their coffee cup at a restaurant or claim they got sick from the smell of animal waste from a nearby farm. Many of these problems end up in court, and the expert asked to testify in these cases may be a forensic entomologist," Goddard said. "The need for such experts is growing because of the tremendous amount of legal issues that arise when people disagree."

As the MSU campers loaded up to head back to their cabins, they left with a better understanding of what forensic entomologists do.

"Many of the campers were thrilled with the experience and expressed interest in becoming forensic entomologists," Goddard said.

Wildlife and Fisheries