What is a Forensic Entomologist?

Cassie L. Damewood
Cassie L. Damewood
A flying ant, which a forensic entomologist might study.
A flying ant, which a forensic entomologist might study.

A forensic entomologist is a scientist who studies insects found at violent crime scenes to help law enforcement agencies identify criminal circumstances and perpetrators. She normally works in conjunction with several agencies that provide her with laboratories in which to study the collected specimens. Her job may be staff-based or she may work as an independent contractor. A number of forensic entomologists also teach at colleges or universities or focus their careers on research.

Collecting evidence at a crime scene is extraordinarily time-consuming for a person with this job. She is normally expected to collect insects from the body, including the skin, clothing, jewelry and orifices. The area immediately surrounding the body is also commonly scrutinized for insects that may have been on the perpetrator. By studying various aspects of the insects, such as type, developmental stage or the damage they've caused to the body, can help determine an approximate time when the crime occurred.

The climate in the area is also typically important in the investigation. The entomologist is generally able to study the weather patterns preceding and subsequent to the criminal act to determine the life stages of the insects at the scene. She can narrow down the time of death by noting which insects were present during hot, cold or wet weather and when they were on the body or in the surrounding area.

The insects on the body provide the forensic entomologist with important information about the corpse. For instance, if the observed insects are maggots, their growth and stage of development reveal how long they have been on the body, making it possible to determine the time of death. Other insects, both dead and alive, can be studied to determine if they are indigenous to the area or were transported there by the perpetrator or victim.

Since the evidence collected by a forensic entomologist must hold up in court as admissible, she is normally required to follow strict guidelines for collection and storage. While following these rules does not guarantee the admissibility of the evidence, it safeguards against the most common mistakes being made. A law enforcement officer frequently accompanies the entomologist to verify the proper steps are taken during this phase of the investigation.

To become a forensic entomologist requires extensive education. First, a bachelor’s degree in entomology or forensic science is required. Following that, a person desiring this position typically takes specific classes related to forensic entomology in pursuing a master’s degree in the subject. Internships are commonly required for this position to give candidates hands-on experience in the field with an experienced forensic entomologist.

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    • A flying ant, which a forensic entomologist might study.
      A flying ant, which a forensic entomologist might study.