Last mites. These tiny bugs hitch a ride from the underlying soil into a decaying body on other insects.

Crime-Fighting Bugs

Staff Writer

A few years ago, a Chicago man was accused of rape. In his apartment police found a ski mask matching the one worn during the summertime assault, but the suspect claimed he hadn't worn it since the previous winter. Then a forensic entomologist found live weevil larvae inside two cockleburs stuck to the mask. Because the larvae do not overwinter, he reasoned, they must have been picked up that summer. Based on this and other evidence, the rapist was convicted.

This is just one of dozens of case histories--many quite grisly--on the Forensic Entomology Pages, International. Not for the squeamish, the site covers the basics of what bugs can reveal about time of death, movement of bodies, and sometimes even the cause of death. (Maggots high on cocaine, for example, apparently develop faster than usual.)

The 6-year-old site was started by Morten Stærkeby, a graduate student in entomology at the University of Oslo, who has worked on about 30 forensics cases since 1996. Stærkeby's initial aim was "just to tell other people about this very interesting use of entomology and to give people some more information about the biological basis of death." Since then, he's compiled an annotated book list with titles that range from the pedagogical Entomology and Death, a Procedural Guide to the memoir A Fly for the Prosecution. And, heaven forbid you should ever need to contact a forensic entomologist, there's also a directory of professionals, among many other offerings.

For a window onto other branches of forensic science, see the special News report in this week's issue of Science.

Related sites

American Board of Forensic Entomology

An extensive collection of links to all areas of forensics

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