A job for the maggot squad: Experts from the Natural History Museum hired out to help police in murder investigations

Museums are making ends meet by contracting out their talent, including to help solve murders

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The Independent Online

The Natural History Museum might seem an unlikely participant in the frontline of the fight against grisly crime.

But then few museums can boast staff with the specialist skills of Amoret Whitaker, a motorbike-riding zoologist who is one of its two forensic entomologists – experts whose craft is focused on helping police in murder investigations, principally by examining maggots and other insect life found in and around a corpse to determine a time of death.

Ms Whitaker is a prime example of a growing trend for the NHM and other British museums, responding to the dire squeeze on their finances from government spending cuts, to sell and market their expertise as consultants.

The NHM, which has a staff of some 300 scientists and researchers working behind its famous gothic facade in London’s South Kensington, made £611,000 last year – an increase of 73 per cent over the past five years – from its consultancy services, which range from helping to catch murderers to pinpointing agricultural parasites to helping customs officers identify smuggled rare species.

Other world-famous institutions are increasingly jumping on the consultancy bandwagon.

But it is within the august walls of the NHM, a high temple to the Victorian ideals of public education and the showcasing of Britain’s scholarly ambitions, that perhaps the most success in selling commercial services is being recorded.

The museum has contracts with the Metropolitan Police and two forensic science laboratories to provide its experts for crime fighting services, which also include forensic botany and forensic anthropology – the analysis of bone remains.

It is also taking a pro-active approach to securing further contracts and tie-ups, taking an exhibition stand earlier this month at a forensic sciences trade fair in London’s Olympia.

The services of Ms Whitaker and her colleagues are increasingly in demand. For more than a decade, the one-time marketing worker has picked her way around some of Britain’s grimmest crime scenes, seeking to decipher nature’s clues on issues from the drugs ingested by a person before he or she died to whether a carpet had been thrown out because it was infested with fleas or because it had been used to wrap a body.

She said: “The police wanted to know if a carpet which had been thrown out had had a big flea infestation, as was claimed by its owners, who kept dogs. I took a mini-vacuum cleaner to their home to discover whether there were large numbers of fleas. The indications were that there had not been a large infestation. After the police put this to the people concerned, it turned out that their son had killed a person and he was charged with murder.”

It is just one example of dozens from more than 200 cases where Ms Whitaker and her colleague, research entomologist Martin Hall, have helped cast light on the circumstances of high-profile killings, including Shafilea Ahmed, the British Pakistani schoolgirl whose parents were convicted of her murder last year.

As understanding of the evidential value of forensic entomology has spread among police forces, so demand for its services has accelerated. The museum has handled 48 cases in the past three years.

The central premise of the science is the fact that from the moment of death, a body starts to decompose and give off specific odours or chemical signals. For the Calliphora genus of blowflies – which includes the common or garden bluebottle and greenbottle – this perfume is irresistible. Once the flies reach a corpse they will immediately start laying eggs, beginning the stomach-turning lifecycle of larvae or maggots feeding on the remains, pupating and becoming adult flies – the root of the forensic entomologists’ science.

By minutely observing and preserving the insect life on a body and in its immediate surroundings, the growth rates of the maggots and pupae can be compared with published data and live samples can be grown in the NHM’s “insectary”, where they are fed on dog food, to discover their age.

Given a whole range of variables – from temperatures at the discovery site to general weather conditions (bluebottles do not like rain) to the extent to which a body has been concealed – Ms Whitaker can establish a minimum time that a person has been dead.

She said: “The most important specimens are the larvae which might have already moved off the body because they have finished feeding, so that is why you have to look at the surrounding area.

“You also have think a little laterally. You need to imagine you are one of the insects and how it is going to behave in terms of where it is going to pupate. We had a case where the maggots had come out from under the door of a flat and gone down two floors below. You have to understand their behaviour.”

The result is a complex but fascinating science which, if a body is discovered within a few days of death, can pinpoint the time of death to within a couple of hours. Even after a period of several months, it is generally possible to narrow it down to a two-week period. Ms Whitaker said: “We need to be fairly conservative. There is no point in trying to force the evidence to provide us with a specific answer.”

In one case, the NHM entomology team was able to establish that the time of death for a man who had been missing for three months was not – as had been suggested by a pathologist –  two to three weeks before discovery.

Ms Whitaker said: “From our analysis we could tell that the man had been dead for at least two and a half months. He had fallen on his way home from the pub, broken his back and died in a narrow space. At least we were able to provide the family with some certainty about what had happened.”