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Forensic Entomology 

- Insects in civil & criminal investigations -

Summary: Insects and insect development can use in both criminal and civil investigations. Insects can be used to determine when, and sometimes where, a person died and are also sometimes the subject of product liability cases.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

What is forensic entomology?

Forensic entomology is the study of insects in investigations for civil and criminal law cases. Homicide investigations usually get the most attention but product liability cases are important as well.

Forensic entomology in homicide investigations

Certain species of flies are strongly attracted to the odor of decomposing human and animal tissue. In a typical case fly eggs are laid on a dead body and the resulting larvae, or maggots, utilize and further breakdown the dead tissue. The sequence of development from egg to adult fly is temperature dependent and highly predictable for a given geographical area.

Additional Keywords: entomology, death, maggots, blow flies, post-mortem interval, medicocriminal, CSI, crime scene investigation

A forensic entomologist uses the evidence of this developmental sequence to work backward to deduce the time since death, or post-mortem interval. This is the essence of forensic entomology -- using the developmental sequence of insects, usually flies, to deduce when death occurred and hence who might be responsible.

Law enforcement has started to use entomological evidence in crime scene investigations to a greater extent in recent years. There is a real demand for trained forensic entomologists but unfortunately very few formal university programs exist in this area. Many forensic entomologists train first in medical entomology then specialize in forensic entomology.

Forensic entomology in civil cases

While homicide investigations get the most attention other areas where insect evidence is important are food product tampering, medical myiasis (maggot infestation of living tissue) cases, and product liability involving insect comtamination or damage. Here an example might be a powderpost beetle infestation in furniture. The question is "where did the infestation start - lumber mill, manufacturer, retailer?" (see Related Articles below).

Forensic Anthropology

In a related discipline called forensic anthropology, evidence associated with human remains is used to deduce the time and cause of death. The book Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab (above) is a popularized account of Dr. Bill Bass' famous "Body Farm" at the University of Tennessee where research is conducted on human remains to determine how bodies decompose under various conditions.

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