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Science on Tap lecture details bug use in forensic science

By Claire Salinas
On April 15, 2014

  • Angela Jones, Police Officer I, protects students in crosswalks and keeps a sharp eye on all students on campus, ensuring their safety. Sara Patrick

When you say the word forensics, most people think of a popular show like CSI. Recently, Dr. Erin Watson-Horzelski talked about her part in the world of forensics during a Southeastern "Science on Tap" lecture. 

Watson-Horzelski is the only forensic etymologist in Louisiana. She explained how her expertise in forensic etymology played in a murder trial in 2010.

She was required to testify to a jury to prove the bugs that had been laid on the corpse of two murder victims were laid in a certain time period.

This evidence was used to help determine the time of death for the two victims in the murder trial.

The defendant in the case was eventually proven guilty, but the information that Horzelski shared had to be cross-examined before the verdict could be given.

During the cross-examination Horzelski had to use her knowledge to explain to the jury why her expertise was relevant to the situation as well as to explain how the examination of the body showed evidence of the time of death. Horzelski explained to the jury how her research helps to determine time of death in humans.

"Hairy Maggot Blow Flies are a predacious and cannibalistic species that wreaks havoc on the crime scene. The Hairy Maggot Blowfly likes to wait a day or two to lay eggs after the native maggots have formed a bit on the corpse," said Horzelski. "Once these eggs hatch, a pheromone is given off that causes the maggots to leave the body to escape being eaten by the active feeding Harry Maggot Blowflies. If you come into the murder six or seven days after it has taken place and there are only Hairy Maggot Blowflies and no natives, it can significantly throw off your estimations of when the murder took place."

This is where Horzelski's expertise came into play.  A normal forensic specialist may not be able to recognize that there is a lack of maggot mass on a corpse due to the eggs being laid by the other species, but as a forensic etymologist can make this determination, also the estimated for time of death.

Hammond local, Raffy Rigney, attended the lecture out of curiosity for forensic etymology.

"I'm a big forensic entomology fan,"said Rigney. "I've read all the bone lady's books, Mary Manhein, she's the faces lab at LSU, I'm very interested in that. I think I'm a frustrated coroner."

Sophomore biology major, Amanda Bergeron, thought the lecture helped her better understand etymology.

"As a person interested in pursuing a job in the forensics field, it was very informative and helpful to understand forensic etymology since it's something I may want to go into," said Bergeron.

Horzelski talked about how the study of basic science can contribute to the solving of future homicide cases.  

"It is important to conduct basic biology and ecology research questions because you first have to understand the carrion environment, which is the interaction of the carcass with the abotics, that's your grasses and all the seasonality changes, as well as the biotics, so that is your interaction with predator-prey, insects, animals, and carrion scavengers," said Horzelski. "You want to understand the carrion community, then when you come to a practical setting and a homicide you can tell if something is a miss. If something is there that's not normally supposed to be there. Any abnormalities to that basic pattern of nature, learned from prior research [can be used]."

Freshman nursing major, Miranda Coe was pleased that Southeastern branched out into the community to spread the message that science is a large part of life.

"Science is a crucial part of life, so I am so glad that the Southeastern Science Department is reaching out to the community to convey that message," said Coe.

Tuesday night's talk was the second spring installment of the "Science on Tap" lecture series presented by the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Gary Shaffer will speak on May 6 about "Wetland Restoration in Southeastern Louisiana," and Dr. Rick Miller will close the series June 3 presenting, "Why Are There So Many Beautiful Flowers?"




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