Crime scene insect investigation boost

23 June 2008

Insect detectives at the Natural History Museum received a cash boost today. The Museum's insect forensic consultancy service received £280,000 to expand its work helping with crime scene investigations.

'Over the years we have seen how our extensive knowledge and understanding of certain insects really can help in criminal investigations, from murder cases to contraband trafficking,' says Dr Martin Hall, Museum insect expert (entomologist), and founding President of the European Association for Forensic Entomology.

Years of forensic expertise

The Museum is at the forefront of this branch of forensic science and has worked with the UK police and others for nearly 20 years. The service is supported by the UK's largest department of entomology - the Museum department looks after more than 28 million insect specimens at the Museum.

Dr Hall works with Museum entomologist Amoret Whitaker on up to 15 cases a year and they are both listed as expert advisers by the Specialist Operations Centre, National Policing Improvement Agency.

Fly larvae found in soil at a distance of 1.4m from a human corpse.

Fly larvae found in soil at a distance of 1.4m from a human corpse.

'With this new funding we will be able to significantly expand this service,' says Dr Hall. 'In partnership with the police and forensic agencies, the service has potential to play a much more significant role in the future.'

Insect clues

Hall and Whitaker research the life cycles of insects and their knowledge about the type and age of insects found at crime scenes can reveal some important clues. 

For example, when a fly lays eggs on dead flesh, the eggs eventually hatch into larvae. The age of the larvae indicates when the fly found the body and, therefore, the minimum period that the body has been decomposing for.

Early forensic entomology
Mature maggots or larvae of the bluebottle blowfly.

Mature maggots or larvae of the bluebottle blowfly.

The Museum's connections with forensic entomology can be traced back to 1935, as some of the fly larvae used as crucial evidence in the famous case of Dr Buck Ruxton, who killed and dismembered his wife and her maid, are housed in the Museum's collections. 

Expert witnesses

Hall and Whitaker continue to work on equally high profile cases, attending court and giving their expert witness. Every case reveals new questions and areas of possible research.

'Part of this award will be used to purchase a thermal imaging camera, which will be used both to carry out innovative research on larval masses, and to enable non-invasive work on body temperatures at crime scenes,' concludes Whitaker.

The financial support is from the Fourth Round of the Public Sector Research Exploitation Fund (PSRE4).