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What Does a Wildlife Forensics Scientist Do?

wildlife lab specimen puma skulls

There are many kinds of science in the world, and even a greater variety of scientists who practice them! Today, Maya is talking with Johnnie French, a Forensic Scientist, Collections Manager, and specialist in Morphology, at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory. Johnnie manages a huge collection of wildlife specimens, from rare types of wood, to products made from endangered animal parts, to evidence from poaching crimes, and more. Johnnie calls it The Greatest Job in the World!

Plus, he has an impressive dermestid beetle colony (flesh-eating beetles) to help remove flesh from bones when they come in as roadkill or as donations from zoos. This may sound like a macabre job, but Johnnie explains that none of the animals studied in his facility are collected or hunted by the lab. They are all brought in from other places, after dying naturally, or being hit by vehicles, found on hiking trails, or sometimes shipped from around the world for examination. The specimens are identified and maintained carefully, so they can be used to help solve mysteries and even fight wildlife crime.

Science starts with a question

Maya asks Johnnie what question he starts with when he receives a new specimen to the lab. Johnnie explains the first question he needs to answer is, “What is this animal?” So he uses his morphology skills to evaluate the item, paying attention to the characteristics of its shape, size, texture, sharpness, color, and patterns. He may also compare the new item to existing specimens in the collection, to see how they are alike or different. Small differences can make an identification easier, if you know what you’re looking for.

Johnnie has spent years learning how to identify specimens this way. He shows some examples of skulls to demonstrate where he looks to find those important differences between cats. Could you tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard from the skulls? Johnnie can tell what they are, based on the shape of the bones and the sharpness of the teeth. That’s how he uses morphology to help identify animals from their bones.

Explore more

Learn more about Johnnie’s fascinating job in this interview. If you’re interested in the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, visit their website at https://www.fws.gov/lab/ We are so thankful to Johnnie for taking time to talk with us, and we look forward to learning more about his work!

If you want to identify a feather you’ve found, take a photo or make a sketch (leave it where you found it) and then check out the Feather Atlas to see what kind of bird it came from.

Image Citation:
Sims, M.E. 2005. Identification of Mid-size Cat Skulls. Identification Guides for Wildlife Law Enforcement No. 7. USFWS, National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, Ashland, OR.