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Featured Scientist: Kelly Carrothers

Forensic Specialist Kelly Carrothers tests tusk samples at the CDFW Wildlife Forensics Lab, in Sacramento

Forensic Specialist Kelly Carrothers (l) prepares to collect tusk samples at the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles.
Forensic Specialist Kelly Carrothers (l) prepares to collect tusk samples at the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles.
 

Kelly Carrothers is a wildlife forensics specialist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, where Kelly is based, is located in Sacramento. Its purpose is to support the investigation work of CDFW’s Law Enforcement Division.

Kelly was hired about three years ago, after the passage of AB 96, which funded lab equipment and staffing for the purpose of putting a dent in the ivory trading industry. Kelly and her coworkers are assigned with identifying tusk, bone and teeth from a variety of animals, to help bring poachers to justice and ultimately reduce the practice of ivory trading.

Kelly was born and raised in Southern California, then attended the University of California, Davis where she earned degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology. Her master’s degree is in forensic science.

What was the moment you realized what you were going to do for a living?

When I was 16, my father signed me up for a research science course in high school … we had to conduct independent research and take that to the county science fair. So I thought for my project, I wanted to do forensics. I looked at postmortem hair roots of mice to see if we could correlate time of death with just how the hair roots change when they died. I ended up getting third place in the science fair, then continued the project and expanded it the second year. I absolutely loved it and thought this would be a cool field.

What about this kind of work resonates with you?

I love mysteries and I love thrillers. I like to solve the mystery. I like the idea of being able to provide a voice for victims. When an animal is illegally taken, there is often no physical evidence that can point an officer in the direction of the poacher. I love being able to work with the “invisible evidence,” the DNA, to piece together the puzzle of who poached an animal. The DNA from an animal – or lack thereof – can be a really powerful investigatory tool since DNA is almost impossible to get rid of! It is really rewarding to essentially be the “voice” of the animal after it has died, as I might be the only person that can shed light on what happened to the animal by looking at its DNA.

What’s the highlight of working at the Wildlife Forensics Laboratory?

I do primarily wildlife trafficking cases that come through the lab – so, a lot of DNA sequencing for species identification. What is this fur? What’s in this Chinese medicine? I do a lot of the ivory analysis and I’ve been able to develop and validate an ivory genetics DNA-based assay (or procedure for determining what a sample is composed of) for identification of ivory-bearing species under AB 96.

Are there cases that have been prosecuted successfully based on the work you did here?

Back in August 2018, my colleague and I were asked to examine some ivory pieces that had been seized as part of the largest ivory case in state history from the Carlton Gallery in San Diego. Over 300 pieces of ivory were confiscated, worth over $1 million, and we were asked to examine and identify 21 representative pieces. That was also the first case that required the use of the ivory genetics assay I had developed. Through a combination of morphological examination and genetics, we were able to identify the species of origin in all of the 21 pieces, and I was able to establish a Minimum Number of Individuals present in the pieces I genetically tested – meaning I was able to determine that at least four different individual elephants were used to make the ivory pieces. It was really cool to later find out that the defendants were convicted of ivory trafficking and were ordered to pay fines totaling more than $200,000, complete community service and were placed on probation.

How does that make you feel when you know the work down the road paid off?

It’s an awesome feeling to think that I am playing a part in California’s attempt to combat the commercialization of ivory and stop the poaching crisis of these species in the wild. Right now, I am spending a large amount of my time developing and validating the lab’s ivory genetics assay. The goal of my work is to first, finish forensically validating the assay so it can withstand any courtroom scrutiny if it arises, and second, to publish my work in a peer-reviewed journal so that our lab, as well as other wildlife forensic labs throughout the world, can use the work I’ve done to support efforts in curbing wildlife trafficking. So far, I’ve been able to use the ivory genetics in a handful of ivory trafficking cases to further strengthen my report conclusions.

Were you one of those outdoorsy kids that love everything about the woods and animals?

Not particularly. I grew up going camping every summer for a few weeks, but I grew up in the city. I’m not a huge outdoorsman, but I dabble in hunting (turkey and dove) and a little fishing.

Some people might find it ironic that your job is to study ways to preserve wildlife, but you also get enjoyment out of hunting and fishing.

My work helps stamp out poaching, which is the illegal and unethical take of our natural resources. But legal, ethical hunting and fishing aren’t inherently bad, and in fact, are very beneficial. Responsible hunters and anglers make enormous contributions to conservation efforts worldwide. Conservation has many sides -- there are things we can do in the lab to preserve a species, but much of CDFW’s work is funded and supported by hunters’ and anglers’ license and tag fees.

If you weren’t in the science world, what’s the ideal job to have?

To this day, I’m waiting to win the lottery (because) I’d love to be an owner, worker, or bartender of a tiki bar on the beaches of Hawaii. Yep, a tiki bar on the beach, making mai tais and lava flows.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Forensic Specialist Kelly Carrothers tests tusk samples at the CDFW Wildlife Forensics Lab, in Sacramento


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