U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Forensics Laboratory

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Cross-Section of African Elephant Tail Hair. Credit: USFWS

About the Laboratory

OUR LAB'S ORGANIZATION STRUCTURE

The Laboratory consists of seven units:

ADMINISTRATION BRANCH

The Administration Branch provides managerial and administrative support to the laboratory staff and is organized into five operational units:

  • Budget/Purchasing and Personnel
  • Clerical Support
  • Evidence Processing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Facilities Management

Budget/Purchasing and Personnel

This unit tracks, balances and projects the Lab's budget, and provides support in purchasing office and analytical supplies and equipment. They also assist staff with personnel matters.

Clerical Support

In addition to answering incoming calls and greeting visitors, these folks also assist analysts with a multitude of clerical duties including copying, faxing, filing, and more involved duties such as database work and travel planning.

Evidence Processing

All evidence is handled by this unit which is tasked with providing guidance to investigators on properly submitting evidence; receiving and logging evidence into and out of the Lab's tracking database; and maintaining chain of custody and the physical integrity of items submitted for analysis.

The Evidence Processing unit receives a shipment. Credit: USFWS.
The Evidence Processing unit receives a shipment. Credit: USFWS.

Quality Assurance

The lab is accredited by the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). The Quality Assurance unit provides services which support accreditation standards.

Facilities Management

The Facility Manager works hard at taking care of the building to make the staff comfortable and happy. The job includes maintaining all mechanical, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling services, etc., as well as overseeing the grounds keeping crew.

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CHEMISTRY UNIT

The Chemistry Unit uses chemical, and instrumental techniques to identify and compare a wide range of submitted evidence items, including wildlife parts and products and poisons/pesticides.

The Chemistry Unit. Credit: USFWS. The Chemistry Unit. Credit: USFWS.

The Chemistry Unit. Credit: USFWS.
The Chemistry Unit. Credit: USFWS.

Common Chemistry determinations carried out by the Laboratory:

  • Analysis of Asian Medicinals
  • Poison and pesticide analysis & identification
  • Characterization of unknown Materials
  • Species Identification

For more information about the hard science involved, please visit our Science Professionals: Chemistry page as well as our Chemistry publications.

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CRIMINALISTICS UNIT

The Criminalistics Unit uses microscopic, chemical, and instrumental techniques to identify and compare a wide range of submitted evidence items such as wildlife parts and products, bullets, cartridge cases, shot pellets, fibers, paint, soil, and physical taggants.

The Criminalistics Section is organized into three operational units: the Criminalistics Staff, the Firearms Staff, and the Fingerprints Staff.

The Criminalistics Unit. Credit: USFWS. The Criminalistics Unit. Credit: USFWS.

The Criminalistics Unit. Credit: USFWS.
The Criminalistics Unit. Credit: USFWS.

Common criminalistics determinations carried out by the Laboratory:

  • Bullet and Cartridge Case Comparisons
  • Shot Pellet Characterization
  • Possible Source Firearms Listing
  • Paint Chip Comparison
  • Synthetic Fiber Comparison
  • Physical Match
  • Soil Analysis
  • Glass Comparison
  • Characterization of Physical Taggants
  • Collection & Preservation of Latent Prints
  • Finger Print Collection
  • Finger Print Preservation
  • Crime Scene Processing
  • Crime Scene Training

For more information about the hard science involved, please visit our Science Professionals: Criminalistics page as well as our Criminalistic publications, Neural Time-Of-Death ID Guide, and Shot Pellets ID Guide.

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GENETICS UNIT

The Genetics Unit uses information from protein and DNA analysis to answer questions about unknown samples.

The Genetics Unit. Credit: USFWS.
The Genetics Unit. Credit: USFWS.

Sometimes law enforcement officials need to identify blood or tissue and have no visual clues to suggest what kind of animal they represent. The Genetics Section uses information from protein and DNA analysis to answer questions about these unknown samples, such as about species, gender, parentage, number of individuals, or whether two samples come from the same individual animal.

In addition, questions about where an animal lived or what population or subspecies it belonged to may be addressed. For some of these questions, each species may require a separate research project. Before questions like these can be answered, basic research must be done to satisfy the requirements of both the scientific and legal communities. The amount of work which needs to be done is likely to continue to increase as more and more species become endangered.

Common criminalistics determinations carried out by the Laboratory:

  • Identify blood and tissue samples to family, genus, species and sources.
  • Identify gender source of blood and tissue samples.
  • Individualize and/or match blood and   tissue samples to the exclusion of other possible species, sub-species and individual sources.
For more information about the hard science involved, please visit our Science Professionals: Genetics page as well as our Genetics publications.

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MORPHOLOGY UNIT

The Morphology Unit uses visual and microscopic comparison techniques to identify a wide range of wildlife parts and products back to a family, genus or species source.

Expertise in ornithology is a part of the Morphology Unit. Credit: Jim Chamberlain/USFWS.
Expertise in ornithology is a part of the Morphology Unit. Credit: Jim Chamberlain/USFWS.

The morphology section consists of a herpetologist, an ornithologist, and a mammalogist. Expertise, experience, and reference material currently available allows identification to species of complete specimens of most North American reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Identification of whole specimens from outside North America is limited to those species present in our ever-changing vertebrate reference collections.

The most common services delivered by Morphology involve:

  • Species (sometimes subspecies) identification of mammal/reptile hides imported for taxidermy mounts or for the leather or fur industry.
  • Identification of: Vertebrates (mostly birds) found dead in oil settling ponds or as dressed carcasses. Species source of talons, claws, whole feet, skeletal elements, partial hides, skins, wings or bird tails used in jewelry, garments, leather goods, or artwork. Hair, down, bone fragments, or stomach contents requiring microscopic analysis.
  • Determination of the minimum number of individuals represented when feathers, talons, or claws are involved.
  • Inference regarding time-since-death when based on selected taphonomic characteristics of bone, horns, or antlers. Time since death CANNOT be made on trophy mounts or frozen carcasses.
  • Determination of age and sex when material submitted is appropriate (sometimes feathers, skulls, skeletons).

The staff of the section is well-versed on the national and international holdings of vertebrate groups in the Museum community, the scientific literature, and on additional sources for expertise within the area of vertebrate taxonomy and identification.

Herpetology is the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians. Credit: Jim Chamberlain /USFWS.
Herpetology is the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians. Credit: Jim Chamberlain/USFWS.

The difficulty with morphology-based forensic identifications is two-fold:

  • Unlike most taxonomy experts, the forensic scientists in the Morphology Section cannot begin their identification process from the standpoint of country of origin, because the submitting agents seize their evidence items off of boats and plane... which means that they (and we) are rarely certain of the country of origin... and the suspects are not likely to be a reliable source of information.
  • And in a like manner, the Morphology Section experts cannot use the classic taxonomic key approach to their identifications, because the parts and products submitted as evidence rarely possess all of the morphological characteristics that were originally used to define the species.

For more information about the hard science involved, please visit our Science Professionals: Morphology page as well as our Morphology publications, Feather Atlas
Ivory ID Guide, and Morphology ID Notes and Guides.

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PATHOLOGY UNIT

The Pathology Unit conducts pathological evaluations of evidence that supports law enforcement agent's investigations into illegal killing of protected wildlife.

This x-ray from the Pathology unit shows a bullet wound path. Credit: USFWS.
This x-ray from the Pathology unit shows a bullet wound path. Credit: USFWS.

Trace evidence such as bullets, pellets, stomach contents, etc. may be collected from submitted carcasses and evaluated in other sections of the laboratory in order to assist the pathologist in making a diagnosis or cause-of-death determination.

The most common services delivered by Pathology involve:

  • Evaluation of wildlife carcasses for gunshot wounds, pesticide poisoning, environmental pollution, electrocution, trap wounds and other forms of trauma as differentiated from natural causes of death.
  • Radiographic (x-ray) gross and microscope evaluations of evidence items are conducted by the pathology team. Descriptive and photographic documentation of observations and conclusions or opinions relative to the cause-of-death are prepared for court or other legal presentation.

For more information about the hard science involved, please visit our Science Professionals: Pathology page as well as our Pathology publications.

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