Wildlife Forensic Laboratory

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Forensic Lab Overview

The Wildlife Forensic Laboratory (WFL) has been operating since the early 1950’s and supports CDFW Wildlife Officers by conducting forensic analyses on physical evidence for casework and public safety investigations. The term "forensic" is the application of science to the purposes of the law. The WFL serves as the wildlife “crime lab” for the CDFW Law Enforcement Division (LED) by providing scientific analyses to assist in the determination of whether wildlife laws have been broken. Over the years, the WFL has assisted Wildlife Officers with thousands of investigations into wildlife crimes such as poaching, trafficking, and illegally marketed products. The WFL fulfills a crucial and ever-expanding role in protecting California’s natural resources by using the most modern forensic techniques to support CDFW Wildlife Officers.

The WFL uses accepted forensic science procedures to examine, analyze, report, and testify on physical evidence seized by CDFW Wildlife Officers. The WFL staff participate in annual proficiency testing conducted by the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS). The WFL is also involved with the national standardization of wildlife forensic protocols for species identification and DNA individualization. Additionally, wildlife forensic science requires the continued development and validation of forensic techniques and procedures for application to casework and to withstand adversarial legal challenges.

Forensic Lab Services

The primary function of the WFL is to conduct forensic analyses on physical evidence in criminal cases, civil cases, and public safety incidents involving wildlife. Depending on the type of sample and the analyses required, the WFL may perform a combination of serological, morphological and DNA testing. Biological samples submitted for testing include blood, tissue, hair, scat, saliva, hide, claw, feather, or ivory. The forensic analyses of such samples have directly assisted with field operations, justified search warrants, and helped prosecute poachers and other wildlife violators. The WFL staff provide legally admissible reports and expert testimony regarding investigation findings.

Most cases submitted to the WFL involve the use of DNA to determine the species, sex, and/or number of individual animals represented by case samples. The WFL also conducts morphological analyses on ivory samples to identify the species of origin and authenticity. During public safety wildlife incidents, the WFL uses DNA-based techniques to identify the offending wild animal.

The WFL provides a variety of services to CDFW Wildlife Officers, including the following:

Species Identification

  • Abalone
  • Birds
  • Fish
  • Horn-bearing
  • Human
  • Ivory-bearing
  • Mammals
  • Reptiles
  • Sharks
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Sex Identification

  • Most Mammals

DNA Individualization (matching/exclusion)

  • Black Bear
  • Coyote
  • Deer
  • Elk
  • Mountain Lion
  • Wolf
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Elephant Ivory Beaded Necklace

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Rhino Horn

Los Angeles County Museum Rancho La Brea

AB 96 Ivory

The signing into law of Assembly Bill 96 (AB 96), now codified as Fish and Game Code (FGC) section 2022, made the commercialization of ivory and rhinoceros horn illegal in California, with limited exceptions. Passage of AB 96 prompted an allocation of dedicated Wildlife Officers, legal staff, and a Wildlife Forensic Specialist to work on issues related to the illegal trade of ivory and rhinoceros horn. Moreover, AB 96 funding supported the creation of the CDFW Genetics Research Laboratory (GRL). The GRL provides the laboratory space and specialized equipment necessary to conduct forensic research for direct application to law enforcement casework.

CDFW is the primary agency responsible for the enforcement of ivory and rhinoceros horn trafficking violations of state law. The WFL supports enforcement efforts by identifying the species of origin for confiscated items. The WFL staff are federally certified in the morphological identification of ivory using physical and chemical characteristics, and continue to make advances in the development of genetic markers to identify every ivory-bearing species listed under the definition of ivory in FGC 2022.

 

Forensic Lab Staff

Erin Meredith, BSc., MSc., Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist
Public Safety, Population Genetics, and Individual Identification
Erin.Meredith@wildlife.ca.gov

Woman in lab coat organizing microscope slides into storage container.Erin Meredith is a Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist. She joined CDFW as a Scientific Aid under the guidance of James Banks in 1999 while completing her BSc. and MSc. degrees in Genetics at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Erin aided in transitioning the WFL to DNA-based methods for individual identification in a variety of wildlife species. This work included the development and optimization of tetranucleotide short tandem repeat (STR) markers for California’s deer, elk, black bear, and mountain lions. Her thesis research focused on the creation and utilization of multiplexed forensic quality STR panels for casework and population genetic study of California’s elk subspecies. Guiding the evolution of each species’ specific genetic markers from their original development to their present status has been a career-long endeavor. Several of these panels have been adopted in other wildlife forensic laboratories across the US, with the aim of standardization and improved data sharing.

Erin’s casework focuses on public safety wildlife investigations and individual identification of native species (deer, elk, black bear, mountain lion, coyotes, and wolves). She is a member of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) - Wildlife Forensic Subcommittee, the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS), and is an inductee to Phi Beta Kappa.

Ashley Spicer, BSc., MSc., Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist
Ivory, Trafficking, and Species Identification

Ashley.Spicer@wildlife.ca.gov

Woman in lab coat checking specimen samples in freezer container.Ashley Spicer is a Senior Wildlife Forensic Specialist. Prior to joining CDFW in 2012, Ashley worked in molecular biology and biomedical research laboratories conducting projects on assay development, species identification, population genetics, and evolutionary studies. She earned a BSc. in Biochemistry from the University of Victoria (UVic) in British Columbia and an MSc. in Forensic Science from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Her thesis research was conducted at the UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory Forensic Unit with a focus on determining the frequency of mitochondrial heteroplasmy present in canine biological samples such as hair, blood, and saliva to assist with forensic interpretations of similar biological samples obtained from crime scenes.

Ashley brought her experience with species identification and sequencing technologies to CDFW and has incorporated forensic DNA methodologies to taxonomically identify birds, reptiles, sharks, fish, invertebrates, and mammalian species in casework. She works closely to support the Wildlife Officers with forensic techniques to identify trafficked wildlife materials (native and non-native) and has testified as an expert witness in ivory identification.

Ashley serves on the Proficiency Test Board for the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) and as the Executive Secretary for the Wildlife Forensic Subcommittee within the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science.

Jillian Adkins, BSc., MSc., Wildlife Forensic Specialist

Woman in lab coat filling and preparing test tubes in laboratory.Jillian Adkins joined CDFW as a Scientific Aid in 2014 and was hired as a Wildlife Forensic Specialist in 2016. She received a BSc. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Microbiology and a minor in Chemistry followed by a MSc. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Cellular and Molecular Biology from California State University, Sacramento. Her thesis research utilized high-throughput sequencing on Illumina’s MiSeq platform, and this project continues as an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Ami Bhatt’s laboratory at Stanford University.

Jillian’s casework focuses primarily on public safety wildlife investigations and individual identification of native species (deer, elk, black bear, mountain lion, coyotes, and wolves). She is a member of the American Society of Microbiology, the Wildlife Society, and an affiliate member of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) – Wildlife Forensic Subcommittee. 

Kelly Carrothers, BSc., MSc., Wildlife Forensic Specialist

Woman in lab coat inspecting samples from the test tube machine.Kelly Carrothers is a Wildlife Forensic Specialist. She graduated from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) with a BSc. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and an MSc. in Forensic Science. While at UC Davis, Kelly focused on forensic DNA analysis, with an emphasis on the population genetics of Native Americans in North America to improve Random Match Probability calculations in forensic casework. After graduating, she worked as a Research Associate at the UC Davis School of Medicine before being hired at CDFW in 2016. She is currently a member of the California Association of Criminalists (CAC) and dedicates most of her time to mitochondrial DNA analysis related to ivory and wildlife trafficking.

Joy Gaines, BSc., Scientific Aid

Woman in lab coat carefully dissecting specimen for testing.Joy Gaines joined CDFW as a Scientific Aid in 2019. She graduated from California State University, Sacramento with a BSc. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation. At CDFW, she performs research, assists with database management and quality control, and assists the Wildlife Forensic Specialists. Joy is planning to begin graduate school in 2020 to pursue a master’s degree in Biological Sciences.

 

Mark McLellan, BSc., Scientific Aid

Man in lab coat examining image on computer monitor.Mark McLellan joined CDFW as a Scientific Aid in 2019. He is in the MSc. in Forensic Science program at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) conducting thesis research in forensic entomology and is projected to graduate in 2020. Mark also works as a Lab Technician II at the Forensic Science DNA Laboratory at UC Davis. He received a BSc. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with a minor in Forensic Entomology from UC Davis, and an A.S. in Fire Science from the Community College of the Air Force. Mark is a member of the United States Air Force Reserves and serves as a Crew Chief/Emergency Medical Responder with the Travis AFB Fire Department. He is affiliated with the San Luis Obispo Fire Death Investigation Strike Team (SLOFIST) as assistant proctor for the Forensic Fire Death Investigation Course (FFDIC) and is a member of the California Association of Criminalists (CAC). Mark has presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the North Central Branch of the Entomological Society of America and at the 2019 North American Forensic Entomology Association.

Publications

  • Meredith, E.P., Adkins, J.K., Rodzen, J.A. (2020) UrsaPlex: An STR multiplex for forensic identification of North American black bear (Ursus americanus), link opens in new windowForensic Science International: Genetics, 44.
  • McCulloh, K. L., Ng, J., Oldt, R. F., Weise, J. A., Viray, J., Budowle, B., Kanthaswamy, S. (2016). The genetic structure of native Americans in North America based on the Globalfiler® STRs. link opens in new windowLegal Medicine, 23, 49-54.
  • Wendt, F.R., Churchill, J.D., Novroski, N.M.M., King, J.L., Ng, J., Oldt, R.F., McCulloh, K.L., Weise, J.A., Smith, D.G., Kanthaswamy, S., Budowle, B. (2016) Genetic analysis of the Yavapai Native Americans from West-Central Arizona using the Illumina MiSeq FGx TM Forensic Genomics System, link opens in new windowForensic Science International: Genetics, 24: 18-23.
  • Ng, J., Oldt, R.F, McCulloh, K.L., Weise, J.A., Viray, J., Budowle, B., Smith, D.G., Kanthaswamy, S. (2016) Native American Population Data Based on the Globalfiler® autosomal STR loci, link opens in new windowForensic Science International: Genetics, pp. e12-e13.
  • Wendt, F.R., King, J.L., Novroski, N. M.M., Churchill, J.D.,Ng, J., Oldt, R.F., McCulloh, K.L., Weise, J,A,, Smith, D.G., Kanthaswamy, S., Budowle, B. (2017) Flanking region variation of ForenSeq™ DNA Signature Prep Kit STR and SNP loci in Yavapai Native Americans. link opens in new windowForensic Science International: Genetics, 28: 146-154.
  • Vogel C.F., Chang W.L., Kado S., McCulloh K., Vogel H., Wu D., Haarmann-Stemmann T., Yang, G.X., Leung, PS, Matsumura F, Gershwin ME. (2016) Transgenic Overexpression of Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor Repressor (AhRR) and AhR-Mediated Induction of CYP1A1, Cytokines, and Acute Toxicity. link opens in new windowEnviron Health Perspect.
  • Spicer, A.S., Kun, T.J., Sacks, B.N., Wictum, E.J. (2014) Mitochondrial DNA sequence heteroplasmy levels in domestic dog hair. link opens in new windowForensic Science International Genetics 11: 7-12.
  • Meredith, E.P., Rodzen, J.A., Banks, J.D., Jones, K.C. (2009) Characterization of 29 tetranucleotide microsatellite loci in black bear (Ursus americanus) for use in forensic and population applications. Conservation Genetics 10(3): 693-696.
  • Pease, K. M. Freedman, A.H., Pollinger, J.P., McCormack, J.E., Buermann, W., Rodzen, J., Banks, J., Meredith, E., Bleich, V.C., Schaefer, R.J., Jones, K., Wayne, R.K. (2009) Landscape genetics of California mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus): the roles of ecological and historical factors in generating differentiation. Molecular Ecology 18(9): 1848 1862.
  • Rodzen, J.A., Banks, J.D., Meredith, E.P., Jones, K.C. (2007) Characterization of 37 microsatellite loci in mountain lions (Puma concolor) for use in forensic and population applications. Conservation Genetics 8(5): 1239-1241.
  • Meredith, E.P., Rodzen, J. A., Banks, J. D., Schaefer, R., Ernest, H.B., Famula, T.R., May, B.P. (2007) Microsatellite Analysis of Three Subspecies of Elk (Cervus elaphus) in California. Journal of Mammalogy 88(3): 801-808.
  • Meredith, E.P., Rodzen, J.A., Levine, K.F., Banks, J.D. (2005) Characterization of an additional 14 microsatellite loci in California Elk (Cervus elaphus) for use in forensic and population applications. Conservation Genetics 6(1): 151-153.
  • Aguilar, A., Banks, J.D., Levine, K.F., Wayne, R.K. (2005) Population genetics of northern pike (Esox lucius) introduced into Lake Davis, California. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 62(7): 1589-1599.
  • Jones, K.C., Levine, K.F., Banks, J.D. (2002) Characterization of 11 polymorphic tetranucleotide microsatellites for forensic applications in California elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis). Molecular Ecology Notes 2(4): 425-427.
  • Jones, K.C., Levine, K.F., Banks, J.D. (2000) DNA-based genetic markers in black-tailed and mule deer for forensic applications. California Fish and Game 86(2): 115-126.
  • Gilson, A., Syvanen, M., Levine, K., Banks, J. (1998) Deer gender determination by polymerase chain reaction: validation study and application to tissues, bloodstains, and hair forensic samples from California. California Fish and Game 84(4): 159-169.
  • Theis, J.H., deRopp, J.S., Schwab, R.G., Banks, J.D., Levine, K.F. (1988) Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to Differentiate Bear, Pig, and Cow Bile for Forensic Investigations. Wildlife Society Bulletin 16(4): 430-433. Published by Allen Press.