Expert Q&A: Jason H. Byrd & Jeffery K. Tomberlin

An interview with Jason H. Byrd and Jeffery K. Tomberlin, editors of Forensic Entomology: The Utility of Arthropods in Legal Investigations, Third Edition.

You can find an excerpt from these editors’ book in this issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

Dr. Jason H. Byrd, PhD, D-ABFE, is a board-certified forensic entomologist and diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Entomology. He is the current vice president of the American Board of Forensic Entomology, and the current president of the North American Forensic Entomology Association. He is the first person to be elected president of both professional North American forensic entomology associations. Byrd is a bureau chief with the Florida Division of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and he serves as the associate director of the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine. At the University of Florida, he instructs courses in forensic science at the University of Florida’s nationally recognized Hume Honors College. He is also a faculty member of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine. Outside of academics, Byrd serves as an administrative officer within the National Disaster Medical System, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, Region IV. He also serves as the logistics chief for the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System. Currently he serves as a subject editor for the Journal of Medical Entomology. He has published numerous scientific articles on the use and application of entomological evidence in legal investigations. Byrd has combined his formal academic training in entomology and forensic science to serve as a consultant and educator in both criminal and civil legal investigations throughout the United States and internationally. Byrd specializes in the education of law enforcement officials, medical examiners, coroners, attorneys, and other death investigators on the use and applicability of arthropods in legal investigations. His research efforts have focused on the development and behavior of insects that have forensic importance, and he has over 15 years of experience in the collection and analysis of entomological evidence. Byrd is a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Dr. Jeffery Keith Tomberlin is an associate professor and co-director of the Forensic & Investigative Sciences Program and principal investigator of the Forensic Laboratory for Investigative Entomological Sciences (FLIES) facility at Texas A&M University. Research in the FLIES facility examines species interactions on ephemeral resources such as vertebrate carrion, decomposing plant material, and animal wastes to better understand the mechanisms regulating arthropod behavior related to arrival, colonization, and succession patterns. His research is also focused on waste management in confined animal facilities and the production of alternate protein sources for use as livestock, poultry, and aquaculture feed.

The third-edition revision of Forensic Entomology is due out October 2019 from CRC Press. This comprehensive book covers current, in-the-field best practices contributed by top professionals in the field who have advanced it through research and fieldwork over the last several decades.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What brought you to forensic entomology?

Dr. Jason Byrd: Throughout my childhood I lived on a large farm. I was always interested in agriculture, and I also developed an interest in forensic science. When I was seeking a college, I was in search of a program that could combine some aspect of agriculture and natural science into forensic science. The University of Florida employed a medical and veterinary entomologist who was also a forensic entomologist, and I enrolled and completed three degrees from UF.

Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin: My experiences are not much different from Jason’s. I also grew up in a rural environment. For me, I always had an appreciation for the cycle of life. But it wasn’t until I took an entomology course at the University of Georgia that I learned about forensic entomology. And, as they say—the rest is history.

ETM: How has the discipline changed since you began?

Byrd: Since I have been active in the field, a professional association has been created, and the number of individuals active in the field has tripled. Recertification and accreditation programs are active, and standards are being developed. It is much more organized and professional now than at any time in the past.

Tomberlin: Research has also diversified tremendously, with efforts covering just about every biological aspect of insects associated with human remains.

ETM: In the introduction to Forensic Entomology, there’s a discussion of the increased interest in pursuing medicocriminal entomology as a career. Do you perceive this as a positive development? And aside from the competition for jobs that this creates, what challenges does this present?

Byrd: Having more professionals active in the field is certainly a positive development. More professionals mean more awareness in the general forensic science community and that leads to widespread acceptance of forensic entomology as a discipline. I do not think there are concerns with job competition as most all forensic entomologists are in academics and active in other areas of forensic science and death investigation. So, there is plenty of work to go around.

ETM: Do any interesting recent discoveries or research topics stand out in your mind?

Byrd: The application of genetic analysis in forensic entomology investigations has the potential to revolutionize the way we apply the science in casework. DNA work in entomology goes beyond species identification, as it can provide information into the geographic origin of the insects, and can provide information on their age, and food sources.

ETM: What are some areas of research that need the most attention?

Byrd: Forensic entomology is still in need of basic and empirical studies on insect development. It is basic observational science, but development data on many common species is still lacking in the detail needed for forensic science casework.

Tomberlin: Efforts exploring the factors regulating insect attraction to and colonization of human remains are needed. Why, in some cases, are remains colonized within minutes—while in other situations, colonization can be delayed?

ETM: What is the effect of introduced species (from Europe and Asia for example) on forensic entomology, and is there a system in place for tracking their range expansion?

Byrd: There is no official system in place for tracking introduced species of forensic importance, with the exception of the screwworm. However, species introduction can certainly alter the species succession and larval development on remains from inter-species competition.

ETM: What are some limitations (or misconceptions) of what medicocriminal entomology can answer in a criminal investigation?

Byrd: The largest misconception is that forensic entomologists can determine the time of death with a high degree of accuracy. That is simply not the case. Forensic entomologists can determine the age of the insects present, and then via extrapolation of other data, can make an estimation of what the time of death could have been, expressed as a range of time.

ETM: What are some examples of utilizing insect evidence in death or criminal investigations, outside of estimating the post mortem interval?

Byrd: 1) Location: Where did the body originate? 2) Path of travel: Insect accumulation on automobiles can determine where people traveled. 3) Period of abuse or neglect. 4) Food contamination: allowable, accidental, or intentional?

ETM: What were your key goals in the revision of this text?

Byrd: The main goal was to keep current with the science. There are many new developments in the microbiome that were not included in the previous editions.

ETM: What is your favorite insect species?

Byrd: I have always been fascinated by social insects—bees and ants. The communication and coordination between individuals to act as a single organism is an amazing feat for social insects.

Tomberlin: The black soldier fly is the coolest insect on the planet (okay, I am a bit biased). Not only is it relevant to forensic entomology, but it has developed into an industry for recycling organic waste to produce protein.

ETM: Are there any other species that you want to learn more about, or that beg for more research?

Byrd: We need more developmental information on flies. Also, research on adult fly behavior and how they respond to deceased organisms in their environment is also an area of needed research.

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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