What is Forensic Entomology? Professor shares insight on how insects assist in legal investigations

by Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Students investigating at a mock crime scene on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station

Students investigating at a mock crime scene on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station. Photo by Rob Williams

Insects can help fight crime by providing important scientific insights that can be applied to legal investigations – plus provide interested individuals with a truly unique profession in forensic entomology. While most may view forensic entomology as the “creepy-crawly” part of CSI-type television shows, that perspective only scratches the surface of this field.

Forensic entomology is the understanding of how the biology of insects and arthropods that inhabit decomposing remains can be used for the purpose of assisting in a variety of legal investigations. Forensic entomologists often work with medical examiners, coroners, local and state police agencies and federal agencies, using their knowledge and skills to ascertain valuable information to be used in their investigations.

AgriLife Today asked Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, professor and director of the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program about his interest in forensic entomology as well as his involvement in investigations to assist law enforcement.

In what ways are insects used to provide insights or information for forensic investigations?

Tomberlin: Insects tend to find vertebrates — humans or other animals — soon after death. By understanding how insects develop we can estimate time of colonization, which can translate into a minimum time-of-death estimate based on certain assumptions. Of course, because some of these insects colonize living individuals, understanding their biology can also be quite useful for determining instances of neglect or abuse. And, they can help in determining if there have been health code violations.

Insects, as related to forensics, can also be useful for determining if a deceased individual had consumed narcotics prior to death — or if the remains were moved from one location to another.

Has the popularity of crime scene investigation TV shows helped bring greater attention to forensic entomology?

Tomberlin: Most definitely. I believe the interest in forensics at Texas A&M, in general, is partially driven by such shows and the overall interest the public has shown in them.

What bugs you about crime scene TV? Do they get certain things wrong — or oversimplify them?

Tomberlin: Ha! Nothing really “bugs” me about it. As I see it, they do the best they can with representing the science. And if they can encourage the youth of this country to have an interest in STEM subjects, I’m all for it. Of course, our job at the university is to help address any misunderstandings that may arise regarding the sciences implemented in forensics.

How did you become interested in forensic entomology? Was there something in particular that drew you to this field?

Tomberlin:  The exact moment when I realized I wanted to pursue a career in this field occurred during my undergraduate studies in biology at the University of Georgia. I was taking an elective in entomology that was much like the Insects and Society course at Texas A&M. I had an interest  in attending medical school and pursuing a career in forensic pathology, but when my professor discussed forensic entomology, I knew at that moment I wanted to be a forensic entomologist.  Medical school was no longer a consideration.

What coursework does Texas A&M offer related to forensic entomology? 

Tomberlin: We have a number of courses that relate to forensic entomology, but the key course is titled Forensic Entomology. This is a three-hour course that also has a lab component. This course has been at Texas A&M for over 20 years and is the seed from which the forensic science program germinated.

We also have other courses that address the science aspect of forensic science. There are courses in crime scene investigation, applied forensic entomology and the science of forensic entomology. There are also several courses related to other aspects of forensics, such as biotechnology and forensics and forensic soil science.

FACTOID: Texas A&M University’s Forensic and Investigative Sciences major in the Department of Entomology was ranked No. 1 out of the top 25 forensic science programs in the U.S. by Bachelor’s Degree Center.

Who do you collaborate with in your forensic investigations?

Tomberlin: We work closely with multiple local, state and federal institutions from across the U.S.. Over the course of my career, I have assisted with more than 130 investigations.

Can you tell us about the forensic investigations you helped with?  

Tomberlin: For most cases, I am asked to review entomological evidence associated with decomposing remains to determine time of colonization, which can be used to infer a minimum time of death. However, I have also worked on cases dealing with abuse and neglect. And, I have had civil cases involving insects on human remains in funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes, as well as in food at restaurants.

What is the Forensic Laboratory for Investigative Entomological Science, or FLIES, facility at Texas A&M, and what sort of research is being done there to expand or improve the science related to forensic entomology?

Tomberlin: The FLIES facility is where the “rubber meets the road” as far as decomposition ecology research at Texas A&M. Basically, we focus on everything related to decomposition, but our primary interests are exploring how nature recycles organic matter, and how such information can be used to better society. While many people recognize us for our forensic efforts, we also explore the use of such processes to recycle organic waste to produce protein for use as livestock feed. We also try to apply such information in sustainable agriculture with confined animal facilities. We look at “cultural” methods for reducing nuisance flies associated with such operations to reduce or eliminate the need for insecticides. But as far as forensic entomology, we want to determine what factors regulate insect attraction to and colonization of remains.

What is something about the practice of forensic entomology that people may not realize?

Tomberlin: I think it’s interesting that out of the 130-plus cases I have been a part of, I have only been to one actual crime scene. A person can have an interest in entomology — but not want to deal with decomposing human remains — and still be quite successful in the discipline. I’ve never had a problem with the macabre aspects of my discipline, so this has never been an issue for me. I’m just stating this as fact for those who may feel unsure if they can “handle” forensic entomology.

Where do graduates with degrees in forensic entomology work? 

Tomberlin: I have found that most students who take forensic entomology at Texas A&M are curious about the topic, but forensic students take it because it is a required course. In terms of practicing in the field, most students pursue a graduate degree in entomology, which allows them to be active as I am — as a professor and forensic entomologist. Others may seek employment with crime labs as crime scene investigators.

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