Wildlife Forensics: Guest Post by Fiona Quinn

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It’s my pleasure to welcome back Fiona Quinn to Murder Blog, with a fascinating post about wildlife forensics. The post is so informative I don’t want to ruin it by rambling, so let’s get right to it. Over to you, Fiona!

In wildlife forensics, an investigator attempts to tie a person or an object to a crime scene by using natural elements. These might include:
* Soil
* Wood
* Pollen grains
* Animal hair (ThrillWriting blog link)
* Animals
* Insects
* Protists (single celled organisms found in water)


Soil analysis might be able to link…

Soil Types

Soil is made up of…

  • Inorganic – percentages of the combinations and make up of the
    soil differs from region to region so can help pinpoint an area
  • rocks
  • minerals (naturally occurring crystals)
  • Organic
  • humus
  • decaying animal and bug matter
  • scat (dung)
  • Man made
  • glass
  • oil/gas
  • paint
  • brick/asphalt

Who will test this information in the crime lab?

  • Chemists
  • Geologists
    Video Quick Study (4:24) talks about using soil in Manson murder
    Video Quick Study (9:11) soil samples might be analysed for poison  and environmental crimes.

Soils vary in…

  1. Color
    Munsell System – describes the color of the soil

* Chroma (purity of the color)
* Hue – the color
* Value – amount of white or black
2. Texture – like clay
3. Particle size – measured through a graduated sieve.
4. Chemistry

Pollen and Protists

Under a microscope investigators look for samples of pollen, protists.

Scanning electron micrograph of Ipomoea purpurea pollen.

Palynology — the study of spores and pollen.

Pollen and spores make good forensic evidence because…
– they don’t degrade easily
– distinctive to a locality
– help clue investigator to determine if the body was  moved from one location to another


  • Reproduce at certain times of the year — a good way to narrow the time-frame. Example: algae blooms in water
  • If the body was in water, or is suspected to have been in water, protists might be able to lead them to a specific location via SEM (scanning electron microscope).

Video Quick Study (5:45) Pollen under the microscope and  identification

Video Quick Study (1:50) Forensic botanist testifies at Casey Anthony trial

Video Quick Study (1:09) Forensic botany


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How is identifying wood helpful in an investigation?

Clues that might help identify a piece of wood…

  • cut marks
  • nail holes
  • unique species
  • species coming from a distinct region
  • In the Lindbergh baby abduction the suspect used a homemade ladder that was left at the scene. The wood expert looked at the tool marks to differentiate the types of wood used in the construction.

Video Quick Study (3:28) Lindbergh wood expert


An animal might actually be the suspect.

Perhaps the investigator is trying to determine which animal attacked a human.

  • Diseased animals (such as rabies) might cause attacks.
  • Bite marks are examined by forensic odontologists (dentists)

Video Quick Study (2:25) forensic odontologist at work

  • Animals at large are tracked using the same methods as with humans (ThrillWriting blog article: footwear)
  • If the investigator suspects the animal that attacked/ate someone was found, the investigators will examine the animal’s stomach contents.

An animal might be the victim if one of the following occurs…

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  • Abuse

On sale for $1.50 (click cover)*Poaching

Video Quick Study (2:16) Wildlife forensic biologist
* Poisoning/baiting – tested by forensic chemists
* Hunting outside of the proper season or with illegal methods
* Illegal trade in protected wildlife is the third largest grouping of criminal activity following drugs and guns.

  • Worth billions a year.
  • Endangered Animals and Plants – Over 30,000 plant and animal  species garner special protection.
  • Can be found in the form of meats, fish, or fish roe available for consumption. DNA would be used to try to determine the  number of animals involved by finding out how many unique DNA patterns are present.
  • Clothing might be made from the body of a protected species.

  • Ground into medicines – investigated by forensic chemists

  • Wildlife is protected in the United States by the Department of Homeland Security – Border Protection Division Information Link

  • Protect endangered species

  • Protect our eco-systems from the introduction of invasive species.

*Inspectors might find animal hair that help link a suspect to a crime scene (ThrillWriting blog article: fur evidence)Video Quick Study (2:14) new wildlife forensics lab to protect the wildlife

Snakes in a speaker 1 (Photo credit: USFWS/Southeast)

Video Quick Study (6:44) Being a Wildlife ranger — protecting the animals is incredibly dangerous. What great heroes and heroines to write into a plot line.
Video Quick Study (6:29) CSI for wildlife

  • Snarge – the pulverized bird remains stuck to an airplane.
    Samples of birds and birds pieces are kept at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The feathers and bird remains found at the scene or an airplane accident help to determine if the plane was  downed by birds.

Video Quick Study (13:22) Goes through the forensics of flight 1549 and bird strike forensics.

The Environment

All of the same scene and evidence protocols have to be maintained (ThrillWriting blog article: CSI 101)

  • EPA involvement
  • Dead zones on land and in water

  • Strange Odors

* Dead wildlife

  • Accidental or criminal poisoning of the environment
  • Heavy metals

  • Insecticides

  • Gas/oil

  • Critical investigative work because these toxins enter the food chain and effect our health.

Video Quick Study (2:13) Dan River coal ash – human water  supply, environmental impact.

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Connect with Fiona

Twitter: @FionaQuinnBooks 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fionna.quinn.52

Website: http://thrillwriting.blogspot.com/ 

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About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine published her flash fiction and her short stories are published in numerous anthologies and collections. InSinC Quarterly featured her forensic articles about Radiocarbon Dating and Skeletal Differences. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday.


  1. Excellent list, Fiona! Bookmarking a few of these for reference. Thanks!
    JHolmes, author recently posted…Now for something differentMy Profile

  2. Great info, Fiona & Sue. Also great video links. This is a fascinating part of forensics and really useful stuff for crime writers – including “snarge”. Now there’s a term I’ve never heard of. Just when I was trying to figure out wtf “covfefe” is, along comes “snarge” which turns out to be splattered bird yick. Hey –
    maybe “covfefe” means bug shit on the windshield 🙂

    • Hahahahahaha! Covfefe: the typo that went viral. It’s amazing how crazy tweeters got over a nonsense word. “Snarge” put me off too, Garry. Must be a Libra thing. 😉

  3. An excellent breakdown in presenting the information. I love how easy this is to follow. Thank you to Fiona and Sue!

    • She does a nice job, Mae, doesn’t she? Fiona’s a pro. Oh, speaking of pros, I read your “weekend” post yesterday, and then life interrupted me before I could comment. Hate when that happens! See you over there in a sec. 🙂

  4. I had to come back. I recall an old story, where a body was in the water and they couldn’t find it. Likely from an accident of some kind. An Indian deputy drilled a hole in the shell of a snapping turtle, attached a line and a balloon, and the turtle led them to the body in short order.
    C. S. Boyack recently posted…Vending Machine ImodiumMy Profile

  5. These people would make very cool characters in fiction.
    C. S. Boyack recently posted…I could write a country songMy Profile

  6. This is fascinating! It’s those details that can help investigators find a body, link a death to a suspect, and so on. And what’s interesting to me is that all of this can also be used to exonerate someone (I’m thinking, for instance, of Australia’s famous Lindy Chamberlain case). Thanks, both!

    • Excellent example, Margot! I’m so glad you mention Lindy Chamberlain. What a heart-breaking case. If these techniques had been available then, and the investigators hadn’t tried to match the evidence to their theory, the Chamberlains’ might not have had their tragedy precipitated by public scrutiny and prison. That poor family.

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