So you want to be a forensic ecologist? Read part two of our comprehensive guide to getting ahead.
Environmental factors can leave microscopic as well as obvious evidence all over a crime scene — especially on corpses. Pollen from local plants, dirt mixtures specific to a field or garden, animal bite marks, squirming larvae inside a body cavity — to the forensic ecologist, these are bright, flashing neon signs when putting together an analysis of what happened. A simple little speck of quartz in a shoe tread, a grass stain on a buried jacket, or a blade of wheat in the scalp of a victim can speak volumes about where, when and sometimes how things came to an end.
After death? You are what eats you.
When a dead body starts cooling off, it sends out a special invitation to nearby insects telling them that the “party starts here”. In minutes, swarms arrive to party down (so to speak). Once the body is discovered, a forensic entomologist will first search for bug evidence, and can determine a lot about the time of death as well as factors such as where the victim was killed. Blow flies drink the fluids and lay eggs, which form larvae that consume body parts as they mature. By determining the maturity of flies or larvae inside the body cavities and comparing this with local weather patterns and blow fly populations, a timeline can be established almost to the hour of death. Should the body lie undetected long enough to dry out, beetle colonies move in and stretch out this timeline appropriately. Like creepy crawlies? You’ll love forensic ecology.
Hungry bugs never give false witness.
Insects helping solve crimes are not a recent development. In 1235 A.D, the Chinese philosopher Sung Tz’u wrote a description of the first documented case of forensic entomology. A murder victim in a small village had been badly cut by a farming sickle. The investigator conducted interviews with villagers, but after many questions and few answers, he decided to let the evidence do the testifying. He asked each villager to place his sickle on the ground — and after a little time, he observed flies swarming over one particular tool. Looking closely, he observed that the flies were after tiny bits of flesh and blood, not common on a blade used to cut grain. Without a logical explanation, the killer confessed.
Not just a fly net: gearing up for your career.
Forensic ecology encompasses natural sciences, weaving together broad sciences such as botany, chemistry and physics, and mixing in specialties such as palynology (pollen), phycology (algae), pedology (soil) and others. Initially, the student will memorize as much flora and fauna as possible before studying families and memorizing Latin names. The first step in becoming a student of ecology is to be able to accurately identify specimens. The real skills come in interpreting, which requires a firm foundation in natural sciences, special areas of study, field and lab work and an ecology encyclopedia stored in your brain cells.
When you are planning your path through college, look for schools with a broad forensics program and contacts in the industry for placing students. Colleges like Ohio State University, boasting the oldest forensic chemistry program, and Penn State, which offers both degree programs and a short course series compare well with the broad and well-respected program at the University of California, Davis, where forensic students recently won a national grant award. Once you are ready to specialize, consider prestigious schools like Boston University, which offers graduate courses affiliated with the school of medicine’s anatomy department or Drexel, which has designed a master’s program for working professionals with and without a science background.
A quick overview: 3 subjects in environmental science.
Diatomology is the study of diatoms – algae; microscopic single cell organisms found in salt water, fresh water and even on damp surfaces. When blow flies can’t get at a drowning victim, diatoms step in to assist.
Entomology – thousands of insects can populate a decaying organism, and the unspoken testimony they provide goes beyond providing a timeline based on their life cycle. They also will tell us whether the body has been moved from one location to another; whether the body was protected during all or part of decomposition; information about prevailing weather conditions and other factors. Some beetles will have distinct differences with like species in neighborhoods as little as a mile away from their cousins.
Palynology is the study of pollens, spores and other microscopic vegetation. Depending on weather, season, geological location and many other circumstances, pollen settles everywhere like dust. It can even help locate the missing victim by looking at the clothing of a suspected offender, and then locating the geological source.
Part-time tree-hugger, full-time detective.
In summary, nature-lovers who wish to serve people and put away bad guys will be rewarded by a career in forensic ecology. In addition to spending a lot of time in the field and out in the sun (or hurrying to collect evidence while thunderheads build up nearby), the lab work balances the liberty of being outdoors by grounding your discoveries in science and criminology. Forensic ecology provides just the right mix.
Your turn: Are you interested in pursuing a career in forensic ecology? Perhaps you’re already a seasoned forensic ecologist and have a niche interest you’d like to share with us? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.