When 22-year-old Rutgers University student Darsh Patel was mauled to death by a bear while hiking, Nicole Chinnici was the one to perform the necropsy on the bear in question and unequivocally link it to Patel’s death based on the bear’s stomach and oral contents.
This is the type of forensic analysis Chinnici performs in her laboratory—the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory at East Stroudsburg University (Pennsylvania)—under the tutelage of Distinguished Professor of Biology Dr. Jane Huffman. Wildlife forensics applies scientifically analyzed evidence to public discourses on legal issues involving wild animals.
Huffman founded the wildlife DNA laboratory at ESU decades ago. She remembers when it was still in a tiny house on campus with lab equipment housed in a bedroom, the basement and even a closet. The thriving laboratory moved into ESU’s $12 million, 51,000-square-foot Innovation Center in 2012.
Huffman’s husband, a forensic pathologist, initially turned her onto the study of population genetics.
“It just metamorphosed from there,” Huffman explained while sitting in her office last month. “Our president back then was able to get a genetic sequencer. Without that, you can’t do any of this work. The idea initially was human DNA, but I said ‘this campus is not certified for that.’ With wildlife, it was something we could do and our students were interested in it.”
“This all really started from Dr. Huffman’s passion. She is just so passionate about this, and that kind of passion translates to people like [Chinnici],” said ESU’s Director of University Relations, Brenda Friday, as she avoided looking at the specimen jar to her left, which Huffman animatedly explained was the fetus of an abnormal doe who died in utero.
“It’s a great example to show that abnormality does occur in wildlife as well,” Huffman said.
In York, Pennsylvania, a farmer picked up an antler in the woods that was quite sizeable. It was shed from a deer that would be considered a “14-pointer” in hunting terminology—in other words, there were 14 individual tines on the buck’s antlers. The number of points on an antler increases as a buck ages; as does a hunter’s desire for such an antler.
The next year, a conservation officer caught a man poaching in those very woods. He had a 16-pointer in his truck, but it was tagged as hailing from Lycoming County, Pennsylvania—nearly 150 miles from York. The man was arrested, but the conservation officer had to prove his case in court.
So, Huffman stepped in.
She drilled a hole in the 14-point antler to obtain a tissue sample, and then genotyped it. She did the same with the 16-point antler—and the tissue samples were identical. Huffman proved the deer tagged from Lycoming Country was indeed living 150 miles away in York just a year prior.
After Huffman provided expert witness testimony as to her findings, a deer biologist confirmed a white tail deer of that size would not and could not travel 150 miles.
But not before Huffman learned two things:
“After the deer biologist gave his testimony,” Huffman recalled, “the judge looked at him, smiled, and said ‘I guess it would have had to be a really good looking doe for that deer to travel 150 miles.’ Everyone laughed, although not the hunter. See, I learn more biology every day than I did [the day] before.”
The other thing Huffman learned?
“I was reprimanded for bringing power tools on to campus. Apparently, you’re not allowed to do that,” she said.
The Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory has more missions than it does staff members.
Huffman founded her laboratory with the following aspects in mind: process evidence from wildlife cases and provide expert testimony, carry out multidisciplinary research and education with a strong relationship with outside agencies, and provide internship opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.
The crux of the lab is its DNA genotyping capabilities. Huffman and Chinnici perform DNA extraction, amplification of specific genes, as well as DNA sequencing of mitochondrial and nuclear genes. The lab is capable of working with any biomaterial—be it tissue, skin, hair, blood, feathers, talons, etc. Once DNA is recovered and genotyped, the lab uses a number of analytical methods to determine species, gender, relatedness, whether the sample contains multiple species, and parts identification and matching.
An animal may be linked to evidence because the animal is the victim, the perpetrator or even the witness. All evidence discovered by the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory is admissible in court.
The lab is also involved with a number of ongoing wildlife management and genetic studies with fish and game commissions, like the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. Huffman and Chinnici even conduct yearly trainings for sample collection with the game commissions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“We teach them how to do sterile techniques,” Chinnici said. “[It’s important because] they are the ones who collect the samples in the field before sending it to us for analysis.”
The lab focuses all its ongoing research and collaborations on high-profile animals that are either threatened, endangered or require population management.
“Conservation of wildlife is the main goal,” Huffman said.
A black bear attacked a Pennsylvania camp site, biting and clawing at the occupied tents before retreating, thankfully leaving the campers with only non-fatal injuries. Wildlife officers subsequently spotted four bears close enough to the camp area to make them “viable suspects.” The pursuit was on.
In the meantime, the officers sent Chinnici a sample of DNA off the tents at the site. She was able to confirm the attacker was an adult male bear.
Officials found the first bear they were pursuing and successfully shot the animal, but it ran off into the dark, rainy night. A few days later, however, they recovered the bullet they shot the bear with, and sent it off to the lab. Chinnici was able to find and pull two pieces of bear hair with follicles intact off the bullet. She then compared the follicles to the original DNA sample—and they matched.
“So while the officials didn’t have the bear in hand, they knew that had shot the right bear and it was injured, and probably dead at that point,” Chinnici said.
One of the reasons Chinnici is so successful with her research is due to the bear database she greatly expanded during her time as a graduate student in Huffman’s lab, before starting as an employee in May 2014.
In her two years as a graduate student, Chinnici added 600 bears from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, and some from the West Coast and Minnesota, into the database. It now has so many animals and is so specific that, with just a small sample, Chinnici can pinpoint what region a bear is from.
“I can tell if a bear is from western Pennsylvania, eastern Pennsylvania or New Jersey,” Chinnici explained. “Based on urban areas, I can also identify if a bear is from the eastern or western part of New Jersey. Sometimes that comes into play with forensics. It’s little things like that that help piece the picture together.”
As essentially the only laboratory that does this kind of work (University of Florida has a small lab), Huffman and Chinnici agreed their extensive databases is what makes their lab unique. Not only do they have the bear database, but there is currently an undergraduate student compiling a rattlesnake version, and Chinnici is also working on a wolf database.
Additionally, the lab runs www.hairdatabase.com, an identification key for hair of the most frequently encountered mammals of the eastern U.S., which comprises more than 85 species. The subscription-based database is the superior resource for the identification of unknown hair samples, featuring an easy-to-use key, fact sheets, comparisons between species, and scanning electron microscope images.
The fundamental goal of the lab is to build and maintain a long-term collection of wildlife DNA samples for forensic investigations by archiving biological materials.
The mutual respect between Chinnici and Huffman as they sit next to each other recalling their most complex and strangest cases leads to the obvious assumption that Huffman’s mission to provide internship opportunities for students could be counted as yet another success for her laboratory.
They have dozens of case stories—a lost bear cub in Central Park, the time a farmer was poisoning sheep and killing bald eagles that feasted on the carcasses, or when a hunter tried to back up his bogus story by literally painting a red blood trail on the road. And then there was that time Huffman brought in a sample to analyze for meat identification, and Chinnici ate it before she could.
“What? It was a Slim Jim. They’re good.”