DNA testing confirmed that these were the eggs of a loggerhead turtle, a marine reptile species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Wildlife forensics experts from NOAA, the Society for Wildlife Forensic Sciences, and other organizations convened last week at NOAA’s Marine Forensics Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, for the inaugural meeting of the Scientific Working Group for Wildlife Forensics (SWG-WILD). The experts established the SWG (pronounced “swig”) in response to a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that criticized certain forensics premises and techniques as scientifically unreliable.
Biologist Kathy Moore, chairperson of SWG-WILD, specializes in marine forensics at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston. Explaining that the NAS report focused on human forensics, she and her colleagues in wildlife forensics were still concerned that its findings might undercut their testimony in courts of law. As a result, they teamed up to set standards meant to bolster the quality and credibility of scientific evidence that they present in criminal and civil trials.
NOAA biologist Kathy Moore examines the tooth of a sperm whale at NOAA's marine forensics lab in Charleston, South Carolina. She was trained and proficiency tested in ivory identification by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We are working on a number of fronts to prepare the wildlife forensics community for the impacts of upcoming legislation,” says Moore.
She is referring to Senate Bill 132, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2011, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The bill, which aims to ensure consistency and scientific validity in forensic testing, would require the nation’s forensic scientists and labs – whether they work with human or animal evidence – to be certified in their disciplines and conduct their work in accredited laboratories.
In addition to protecting the personal rights of U.S. citizens, the legislation is intended to fend off an ever-growing assault on the U.S. economy: Trade in illegal wildlife. The profits from this clandestine commerce run well into billions of dollars per year, and it could be the third-largest black market after drugs and weapons.
In terms of marine life, the trade includes deliberately mislabeled seafood, unlawful fishing practices, and the poaching of threatened and endangered species. In her Charleston lab, Moore and her co-workers routinely analyze the evidence for such cases on behalf of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement. It is the only program in the United States dedicated to the forensic analysis of marine species.
The principal goal of SWG-WILD’s first meeting was for the experts to reach consensus on certification and standards of practice in wildlife forensics. At present, only three wildlife labs in the country are accredited, and there is no program for certification in wildlife forensics.
Spearguns are often seized in suspected poaching cases of endangered sea turtles. To identify the species, NOAA analysts examine trace evidence on the harpoons.
Moore and her SWG colleagues are interested in changing that, not only because future legislation would likely require it, but also because it ensures that the science used by the courts is accurate and unbiased.
As an example, Moore points to the fact that she was recently trained and proficiency tested in ivory identification by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Forensics Laboratory. In most cases, she must identify the remains of marine creatures through DNA and other time-consuming genetic tests.
“It’s obviously much easier to ID the tooth of a sperm whale morphologically [by sight] than genetically,” Moore says.
Third-party proficiency testing also bolsters analysts’ credibility in court when testifying as to the species of origin of teeth from whales and other marine animals.
Moore is also working with the Society for Wildlife Forensic Sciences to include some marine fish in its current proficiency tests for DNA species identification so that NOAA scientists can be tested by an independent party.
“Whether or not the proposed legislation passes, certification and accreditation will be necessary in the not-too-distant future,” she concludes. “We need to be prepared to raise the bar for the field of wildlife forensics as a whole.”
Other SWG-WILD members and observers represent Canada’s Trent University Department of Forensics and Functional Genomics; U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Forensic Laboratory; Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Laboratory; University of Maine Molecular Forensics Laboratory; NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center; Federal Bureau of Investigation mtDNA Unit; University of California Davis Veterinary Forensics Genetics Laboratory; and National Institute of Standards and Technology Office of Law Enforcement Standards.