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Jared Ceruce

Inside the World's Only Wildlife Forensics Lab

Original image
Jared Ceruce

By Liana Aghajanian

William Kapp didn’t know it, but he was about to get sandbagged. In April 1998, a client asked the part-time Illinois-based taxidermist to find him the hide of a Bengal tiger. Kapp couldn’t resist the opportunity: He knew the sale could fetch upwards of $25,000. He also knew the consequences. He’d been trafficking endangered animal parts for more than a year. And though the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act made the business illegal, he’d sniffed out the “little tricks” to get around the law. Now he just had to find a tiger.

It had all started when Kapp heard a rumor that Funky Monkey Exotics, a local pet distributor, was unloading its lions, mountain lions, and leopards. Since Kapp didn’t have a license to purchase the animals, the owner of Funky Monkey suggested a loophole. He would transfer the cats as a “donation” rather than a sale. Money was still exchanged, but the falsified paperwork would keep the feds off Kapp’s back. Once the transfer was made, Kapp or his clients would shoot the animals point-blank in their cages. In some cases, Kapp dragged the limp creatures out to a field for photographs. Mostly, he just mounted the wild animals, selling the exotic meat and hides for profit.

It was a tidy business. Through his connection with Funky Monkey, he could source nearly any exotic animal he wanted, although he worked mainly with large cats. What Kapp didn’t know, however, was that he was being watched. As it turned out, the man who requested the Bengal tiger was an undercover agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In May 1999, Kapp and 15 others were arrested in three-state antitrafficking sting code-named Operation Snowplow. Undercover agents testified in court, submitting documents and videotaped footage of their interactions as evidence. But the government knew those exhibits wouldn’t be enough to make the charges stick. Wildlife protection cases were notoriously difficult to prosecute. Most police crime labs didn’t have the training or sophisticated equipment to verify wildlife agents’ claims in court. And without that conclusive science, juries were hesitant to convict. This time, however, the government had a secret weapon: an elite wildlife crime lab in rural Oregon.

Located in Ashland, 300 miles south of Portland, the National Fish & Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory is the world’s only research facility dedicated to animal forensics. Investigators here have pioneered innovative techniques in everything from grizzly bear autopsies to underwater fingerprinting, and today the lab is a linchpin in the fight to protect endangered species. It takes on nearly 750 cases a year, providing scientific support to agents in 169 countries. Its scientists have broken up caviar trafficking rings and helped put elephant poachers behind bars. Now, the facility was about to help nail Kapp and his colleagues in one of the biggest crackdowns on tiger trafficking in United States history. And none of that would have been possible if one Fish and Wildlife agent hadn’t hit his breaking point 35 years ago.

The Origin of an Organization

In 1976, special agent Terry Grosz was living in Washington, D.C., working with the Endangered Species Program. An imposing 6-foot-4 figure with plenty of moxie, Grosz had climbed the ranks working cases in California and the Dakotas. But in the nation’s capital, the cards were stacked against him. Each week, field officers would send him watchbands made of leopard skin and oils pressed from sea turtle. Evidence piled up, but Grosz had no lab to help him build cases. When he did find scientists to work with, they often refused to testify. Then 11,000 pounds of endangered sea turtle meat showed up in a New York port.

“I didn’t have any means to identify the meat that would stand up in court,” he says. Nonendangered turtle meat looks just like endangered turtle meat, so Grosz couldn’t just eyeball the difference. “The officers were struggling. I was struggling,” Grosz says. Seething with frustration, the special agent marched into his boss’s office: He couldn’t do the job without a scientist on his side. To Grosz’s surprise, his boss agreed: “He said, ‘I’ll release $50,000, and you hire a lab director and a secretary, and we’ll put together an [animal] forensics lab.’ ”

Grosz was thrilled at the possibility. But as he started recruiting, he began to worry. This was a dirty business, after all, and he needed a lab director he could trust. So Grosz came up with a trick question: Toward the end of each interview, he told applicants that he might need them to manipulate lab results in order to seal the biggest cases. Then he asked each candidate whether he or she would ever fudge data for the cause. Some hedged. Some said they would. But of the nine people he spoke to, only one got up and walked out in disgust. That’s when Grosz knew he’d found his man.

Like Grosz, Ken Goddard had started out on the West Coast. He’d spent the first half of his career as a Southern California crime scene investigator. But after working on homicide and sexual assault cases for decades, Goddard was ready for a change. Animal forensics was just that. Unlike labs that focus solely on human DNA, Goddard would get to examine crime scene evidence from thousands of species. The duo set up shop in Oregon, as far from D.C. as they could get, in a lab off Ashland’s East Main Street, and Goddard started from scratch. He began by collecting samples and research on major game like deer, elk, and mountain lion. But the work quickly became more exotic. As agents approached Goddard to do elephant autopsies for clues on the ivory trade and analyze grizzly bear carcasses for evidence of foul play, the lab suddenly felt too small. Today, at a staggering $10 billion per year, the illegal wildlife trade is large enough to keep their lab bustling. Tucked away on a nondescript stretch of Interstate 5, the new facility boasts a $4.5 million operating budget, 24 handpicked scientists, and a Plexiglas box full of flesh-eating dermestid beetles (they make autopsies easier). Together, they tackle 500 domestic cases and another 250 from abroad each year. And each case presents a unique challenge.

A Day in the Lab

Every morning, fresh shipments of evidence arrive at the lab. Sometimes it’s an envelope stuffed with a few feathers, ivory particles, or fur. Other times, scientists will crack open a crate to find stacks of leopard hides or thousands of seized crocodile-skin boots that are, if nothing else, of questionable taste. Nearly 5,000 pieces of tagged evidence come through the lab in a given year, and the scientists—among them geneticists, pathologists, and firearms and fingerprint experts—never know what a random Wednesday may bring.

Jared Ceruce

By midday, they will have examined the bits and bodies in any given crate, hunting for the clues and trace evidence the agents need. Dirt, dead bugs, blood, fingerprints—it all helps to paint the picture of the crime. Sometimes the lab is looking for disease: It has a special containment unit on site where scientists examine evidence for anthrax and other potential contaminations. Sometimes an animal is so mangled or unrecognizable that investigators need help. That’s where the dermestid beetles come in, cleaning bird and animal carcasses with precision, allowing scientists to match the stripped skeletons. (That is, unless they’re dealing with an alligator. The beetles prefer not to munch on alligator meat, which has a natural insecticide.)

Bill Clark, a veteran wildlife crime officer with Interpol, calls the lab invaluable. In 2008, he worked with Goddard’s team to identify 78 elephant tusks seized from traffickers and was astounded by what the team discovered. By analyzing the way the ivory had been cut (machetes had likely been used), the discoloration that could have come only from a certain type of gunpowder, the light coloration on the top of the nerve cavities that showed the creatures had been buried, the traces of blood that showed which elephant population the tusks came from, and even the chips of paint that could help identify the poachers’ vehicle make, the team saw things in the seized tusks that Clark never would have spotted. But the biggest coup came from the discovery of a red spider and several flies shipped with the remains. As Goddard excitedly told the Mail Tribune, “We certainly didn’t expect insects. They’re probably the most significant find because they can be region-specific. What we’re seeing is probably all the raw data we need.” And while the analysis wasn’t enough to finger the criminals, it was enough to pinpoint the area in Africa where the trade originated, helping Clark’s team get closer to the source.

For his part, Goddard has no shortage of adventure stories from his more than 20 years with the lab. Unlike his coworkers who mostly spend their days in the lab, he periodically ventures into the field, where he’s turned down bribes from caviar-trafficking Russians, waded in decomposing walrus guts in Alaska, and helicoptered over Africa’s rhino-poaching zones. But Goddard is quick to downplay the exotic nature of his work. “If you want to have the rush, the experience of a rhino horn, just chew on your fingernail,” he jokes.

Lab Rats

What Goddard and Grosz have built is stunning. Today, the lab boasts the most comprehensive animal DNA database in the world, covering more than 1,200 species. They’ve pioneered forensic techniques involving fur and fingerprints and teeth. With the help of a dazzling “morphology room,” packed with reference specimens from old cases—a museum of crocodile skulls, stuffed birds and reptiles, leopard hides, and narwhal tusks—the team has compiled an exhaustive manual for identifying rare species. And the lab has fulfilled Grosz’s vision—it’s made it possible to actually prove an animal’s endangered status in a court of law.

Since Operation Snowplow concluded in 1999, the lab has assisted in the prosecution of thousands of animal crimes, including Kapp’s case. The trafficker ended up in prison and was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands in fines. In 2005, Kapp appealed his conviction, arguing in part that the scientists had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the stuffed cats were actually endangered species—as opposed to hybrids, like ligers (the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger) or ti-ligers (from a female liger and a male tiger). But the National Forensics Lab’s morphology department had sealed the case. Years ago, a judge would have indulged the argument and likely let Kapp off. But the expert testimony, where one of Goddard’s scientists explicitly showed the distinguishing characteristics between tigers and ligers, was more than sufficient to uphold the conviction.

Jared Ceruce

As for Goddard and his team, their jobs seem to shift by the day. When the field itself is the ever-changing landscape of evolution, the future is difficult to predict. Even the types of cases they focus on are different. Caviar, for instance, used to be a much larger concern. Now the lab is being asked to handle rosewood cases and endangered plant exports. Meanwhile, it’s the growing field of genetics that gives Goddard pause. The lab’s director fears a Jurassic Park–like market, where criminals use DNA to resurrect extinct animals or even create new species. By using viruses to induce gene changes, a scientist could theoretically force an elephant embryo to grow up into a woolly mammoth.

“We can deal with a mammoth,” Goddard says. “But what if they come up with something that’s never been on the planet before?”

The unknown is always terrifying. But for a man who shrugs off Russian gangsters, is happy to analyze anthrax, and thinks rhino horn is no more special than a fingernail, when that shipment arrives, it’ll be just another day at the office.

The Golden Lab

How good are Goddard’s scientists? Here’s a glimpse of the wide-ranging discoveries coming out of his lab.

Shell Games: Until recently, it was impossible to grab finger and palm prints from a conch shell immersed in corrosive saltwater. But fingerprint expert Andrew Reinholz figured out different ways to do just that. One trick he uses involves a sensitive vacuum deposition chamber. He “develops” the prints by using metals like zinc to coat the shells, bringing the evidence to light. The impact goes beyond conch shells—ditching a gun in saltwater might not be a favored method for criminals much longer.

Mammoth Concerns: With ivory trafficking a constant issue, the lab’s deputy director, Ed Espinoza, discovered a surprising tool for differentiating between ancient and modern ivory: a protractor! While analyzing the cross-hatchings present in elephant and mammoth ivory, he noted a difference in their angles. Elephant ivory forms angles greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth ivory intersects at less than 90 degrees. The distinction helps enforce importation laws.

Hairy Business: The hair of the endangered Tibetan antelope is used to make an ultrafine fabric for shawls called shahtoosh. But there was no way to identify shahtoosh from legal fabrics like pashmina—that is, until mammologist Bonnie Yates noticed the “guard hairs.” Located on the outer coat, these telltale hairs are ignored for the softer underfur that makes up most of the garment. The discovery earned Yates praise in Thailand, where she assisted the royal police in an important shahtoosh case.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]