Maggots Graduate To Crime Fighters

Maggots crawl around in a jar at the Science Museum of Minnesota Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 in St. Paul, Minn., where the new CSI:Crime Scene Insects exhibit will open Saturday. The exhibit gives museum visitors a chance to step inside the mind of a forensic entomologist to discover the secrets bugs can reveal in crime scene investigations.
The bugs don't lie. Maggots and other insects found at a crime scene can provide investigators with important clues, according to a new exhibit that made its world premiere at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the first stop on a tour booked through 2007.

"CSI: Crime Scene Insects," explores the rapidly growing field of forensic entomology, and how insects can crack cases and bring killers to justice.

Not only was the exhibit inspired by the hit "CSI" TV crime investigation shows (which air on CBS), its curator is a consultant for both of them. He also does work for the FBI and law enforcement agencies around the world.

"It's really kind of exciting," said the curator Lee Goff, chairman of the forensic sciences program at Chaminade University of Honolulu. "It's a chance to bring something to people that 20 years ago I don't think anyone would have been interested in."

The types of insects on a body and their stages of development can help determine the time since death. They can also provide clues to the cause of death, where the victim was killed and whether drugs or other toxins might have been involved.

Courts allow the evidence because bugs make good witnesses, Goff said.

"They're predictable and they really don't care," Goff said. "And as long as you do a nice objective analysis of what's going on, you kind of follow that trail of evidence, they're going to bring you to the truth of what happened."

The exhibit is designed to offer something for all ages and interest levels. Younger visitors can learn about the basics of insect anatomy, then build a bug of their own from a collection of insect body parts. Preserved and living maggots, beetles, flies and other bugs are on display.

But because some parts might be too gruesome for younger or squeamish visitors, a curtain fences off the crime scenes, as well as an exploration of the five stages of decomposition and a pair of open morgue drawers. In them are two model cadavers, one showing how the first insects take up residence in a body shortly after death via the nose and other openings, and one depicting advanced decomposition, with a video screen on its chest showing how maggots have invaded.

It's "a little graphic, but they see worse stuff on prime time TV," Goff said.

"CSI: Crime Scene Insects" ends its run at the Science Museum of Minnesota Jan. 19. It next goes to the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, Va. The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History will host the exhibit in Spring 2005.