Forensic Entomologist  What They Do

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dotForensic entomologists apply the study of insects to crime-fighting.

Sometimes called medicolegal entomology, the field uses the predictable life cycles of insects to provide clues about crimes. From murder to contraband trafficking, many crimes can be investigated with the help of these scientific experts.

dotIn addition to laboratory and academic work, forensic entomologists spend time testifying as expert witnesses. They may also spend several hours in preparation, reviewing their testimony with prosecutors or defense attorneys.

Jason Byrd is the second person in the United States to be formally trained in forensic entomology. Byrd says that the courtroom is not a classroom, and it has to be handled differently. He has mixed feelings about casework and the personalities that he has to work with during a trial.

"I like assisting the local law enforcement. And I like shedding light on cases and providing a service to local law enforcement that they just normally can't get. I don't necessarily like the adversarial nature of the courtroom and a lot of the shenanigans that go on -- and dealing with lawyers in particular. I certainly don't like that aspect of it," says Byrd.

Gail Anderson is a full-time forensic entomologist and an assistant professor. She isn't fond of testifying either, but says it comes with the territory.

"I don't particularly like testifying, but it's part of [my] job....It's not like going to a conference and telling people about my research. It's about sitting on the stand having everyone trying to make you look stupid," says Anderson.

dotThis science isn't an exact one. Insect activity may vary by climate, time of year, temperature and other factors. Investigators use what they learn from forensic entomologists in conjunction with other hard facts. Insects can also be of help in establishing whether the corpse has been moved after death, by comparing the local fauna around the body and the fauna on the body.

About 80 to 90 percent of cases Byrd is called to work on require information on the time of death of a body. It is not the body, however, that provides the clues for Byrd. The evidence lies in the bugs on the scene.

How does a fly solve death's mysteries?

"When crime scene techs arrive at the scene and make an entomological collection, you can take what they've collected for you and determine the age of the larvae," says Byrd. "And then you can project backward in time as to the period of time which should have elapsed before the adult would have become interested in the body. And then you have your post-mortem interval."

dotAnyone who's dabbled in forensic entomology may choose to work in one of several related fields. Some of Byrd's colleagues, for example, have gone into toxicology, some have become coroners, while others are forensic analysts in crime labs.

Byrd advises students to broaden their perspectives if they're interested in forensics. In other words, don't get stuck on bugs. "To young people, I would suggest to consider many different aspects of the forensic sciences. There are a lot of things, if you have an interest in biology, that you can do that reach far beyond the realm of entomology. I think forensic science in general is a very employable area," he says.

At a Glance

Study bugs to catch crooks

  • You can work in a number of areas
  • These experts often testify in court
  • Most hold degrees in entomology