Forensic Entomology

By Haskell, Neal; Haskell, Christine | Law & Order, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Forensic Entomology


Haskell, Neal, Haskell, Christine, Law & Order


Death scene investigators quickly learn that flies, maggots and corpses go together. For many years, the worms crawling in the eyes, noses, and other orifices and wounds on dead bodies were considered just another disgusting element of decay- something to be rinsed away as soon as the body was placed on the table for autopsy. However, insects can be a tremendous tool in answering questions related to a death or other crimes.

The science of forensic entomology has become recognized as an essential component of the forensic science team, including: forensic pathology, forensic botany, forensic anthropology, forensic dentistry and the crime scene technician. Forensic entomology can offer a very powerful biological tool to the criminal justice system.

Insects comprise the most important group of organisms that colonize decomposing animal carrion, with respect to the speed and completeness with which soft tissue of dead animals is removed. This is most dramatic when temperatures are hot- dead animal carcasses have been observed being skeletonized within 96 hours of death. This very rapid decomposition was due exclusively to high numbers of voraciously feeding fly larvae and high environmental temperatures.

Certain groups of insects are attracted to animals and humans immediately upon death. These insect species are present through the whole decomposition process and different species are present the entire time the corpse is decomposing. With this sequence, the forensic entomologist working at the death scene can address several of the questions pertaining to what happened to the victim.

The most important group of insects associated with the decomposition of a human corpse, and thus the most useful in death investigations, is the Calliphoridae, or blow flies.

The questions that a trained and knowledgeable forensic entomologist can answer will include: time of death, season of death, geographic location of death, storage or movement of the remains after death, evidence of trauma, presence of drugs or chemicals, detection of human body parts, and neglect or abuse of children or the elderly. It is through the diligent research of the forensic entomologists that these questions are answered, due to the increasing knowledge being generated by studies of dead animals and humans.

Forensic entomology research has taken place across the United States by experiments with many different animal carcasses and human cadavers and at a special and unique research facility known as the Anthropological Research Facility (a.k.a. the body farm) at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. With knowledge regarding insect behavior, biology and growth, the forensic entomologists can provide new and cutting edge tools to answer questions at death scenes and in other investigations.

Time Since Death

In the first few hours after death, experienced forensic pathologists can estimate the time of death by observing human physiological changes that occur in the body after death. These changes can include: rigor mortis, the stiffening and relaxing of the muscles of the body; livor mortis, blood pooling and fixing in the soft tissues; algor mortis, body cooling.

When it is hot, these markers are shortened in time considerably. It then becomes the natural biological species that can provide accurate and precise estimates of intervals of the time of death.

In other cases where the time since death is of a longer duration, it is the known sequence of insect species present and the amassed combination of insect groups and species that will provide the indication. If in Indiana during the summer, with normal temperatures, a body that has been dead for 30 days has a certain sequence of species of insect and the next summer a body with the same sequence of species in the same stages of development is found, the body has been in place somewhere around 30 days. There will be a range, however, due to temperature differences. …

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