Forensics February: The Lizards in the Luggage

February 23, 2015

Copyright: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

Copyright: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service

Have you ever watched Border Security? I’ve seen the Canadian and Australian editions and there may be more. They’re reality TV shows that take you inside customs and border checkpoints at airports and post offices, and if you can get past the constant recapping, it’s quite fascinating to see what people try to smuggle across borders – accidentally or not so much.

I especially like the episodes with the sniffer dogs. ūüėÄ

Only about 10% of contraband is ever detected, which is a huge conservation issue, because¬†in addition to the usual cigarettes, illegal drugs, and weapons, many people smuggle wildlife. Like the man who tried to make it out of Australia with nine shingleback skinks in his suitcase – a species that’s legally protected but sells for $6000 per lizard on the black market.

Some experts estimate that global trade in endangered species is worth more than 20 billion US dollars per year. In terms of its impact on endangered species, wildlife trafficking is second only to habitat destruction. In terms of individual animals? Millions are captured, injured, or killed every year.

Before wildlife smugglers can be prosecuted for their crimes, law enforcement agencies have to identify the animal species involved. That’s not too difficult in cases involving living animals, but wildlife products – meat, shell, leather, horns, bone, wool, eggs – can be a much bigger challenge. Fortunately, most of these products still contain animal DNA. Forensic scientists can compare the DNA in the smuggled item to a database of DNA from known species. If there’s a match to a protected species, charges can be laid.

9781928005032_cov.inddSpecies identification is a slightly different process than the DNA fingerprinting you’ll see on TV. DNA fingerprinting uses nuclear DNA – the kind that we get from both our mothers and our fathers.¬†Species identification uses mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed directly from mother to child. It also mutates slowly compared to the markers used for fingerprinting, which means there’s a high degree of similarity between an individual and its ancestors. That’s why all members of a single species tend to share mtDNA sequences, making it perfect for species identification.

The biggest challenge is creating a good database of known species.¬†Without a reference sample from a particular species, it’s impossible to match an unknown to the database.¬†The huge number of species that could be involved in a wildlife crime is one reason wildlife forensics is so much harder than human forensics, and it’s also one reason that basic biological research is so important – without that foundation, accurate forensic analysis is impossible.

Have you ever watched Border Security? Have you seen displays of seized wildlife products¬†at your local airport? Been tempted to buy a wildlife product on vacation that you weren’t sure was legal? Share in the comments!

And if you want to learn more about wildlife forensics, check out my book, Fuzzy Forensics: DNA Fingerprinting Gets Wild, for ages 12+.

Exciting news! The Spring Break Into Science Facebook Party page has now been launched. The event takes place on Facebook on March 7, from 1:00-5:00 EST. It’s a public party, so you do not have to “friend” me for an invite (but feel free if you want to!). There will be fun facts, great discussions, and awesome prizes, so check it out!


SBS banner

2 Comments on ‘Forensics February: The Lizards in the Luggage’

  1. I am never tempted to buy any wildlife, dead or alive! I’ve had a few critters come uninvited into the house, but they weren’t endangered, well, not general. Personally, yeah, a bit. (Even the mouse was released into the wild. lol) But I did not realize there was such a huge problem. Holy cow!

    Reply | 
    1. We’ve had a couple of mouse casualties and a few birds that did not survive impact with the windows (we buried them so at least they’re going back into the earth).

      The scale of the problem is really disheartening, and the scary thing is, this is driven by demand, partly for animal products and partly by the (illegal) exotic pet trade. But how do you decrease demand? Not an easy problem to solve.

      Reply | 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *