entomologist

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Forensic Entomologist to the Rescue!

When a chief of police contacts you about insects and dead bodies, a good entomologist hopes that her skills are badly needed to solve the crime of the century…that the insects found on the body are clues to the time and place of death. One of the critical roles of insects in any ecosystem is to break down dead bodies, and this is what they naturally do with any carcass. The first handbook for coroners was written by Song Ci in 13th century China; since then, this field has become professionalized and there is even a North American Forensic Entomology Association. One CSI team member is a forensic entomologist and a real life expert is a consultant for the series (us bug people are hyper-alert to these parts the show!). But back to my police chief. He sent me some photos and sure enough, a carcass….of a dead bird in western Pennsylvania. Riddled with lovely beetles doing their thing: eating it up!

These were Nicrophorus of the family Silphidae, but the species identification would require close examination of the the orange pattern on the elytra (hind wings). They were not Nicrophorus americanus, which is commonly called the endangered burying beetle as it is found in less than 10% of its historic range of distribution. Nicrophorus beetles show an unusual behavior of elaborate parental care: the carcass becomes the site of courtship, and the male and female bury the carcass so they and their offspring can feed. Aren’t insects bizarre and wonderful?