COLLEGE STATION, Texas—The mention of the word maggot may bring horrific things to mind and gross a lot of people out. To Dr. Jeff Tomberlin and his team at the FLIES Facility, maggots (fly larvae) are very important scientific tools for assisting law enforcement to solve criminal cases.
Tomberlin was recently featured in a short video that was posted online at National Geographic website at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141029-maggot-flies-bodies-video-forensics-science/ In the video, Tomberlin discusses the ecology of decomposition and how insects can be used to help determine when colonization might have occurred and potentially estimate a minimum time of of a person or animal.
Tomberlin said that when an animal dies, microbes begin in the carcass begin to break down tissues, which produces gases and begins bloating the body over time. Flies used these odors to locate the remains and then lay their eggs or larvae in the moist cavities, such as the nose, mouth, or eyes. The offspring of these flies then feed on the soft tissues.
Different species of flies vary in their diet, and some flies, such as the black soldier fly are omnivorous, which means that they are able to eat a wide variety of foods. He then said that once the maggots eat their share, other insects including beetles, and scavenging animals would eat what is left of the animal.
Forensic entomologists, such as Tomberlin, study flies and maggots to determine what factors influence when insects start colonizing human or animal remains. He said that a better understanding of the colonization times would allow forensic scientists to help better predict the actual time of death of the person in question.
The unknown, Tomberlin said, is what attracts certain insects to a decomposing body. He said that researchers suspect that odors that are released by microbes as they break down certain substances may be a major factor.
Tomberlin said that the video was a great way to allow him to explain what his lab does to the general public.
“This was a great experience and a very excellent opportunity to take science to the general public,” he said.
You can learn more about Dr. Tomberlin’s research at his website: forensicentomology.tamu.edu