If anyone bothered to look, crime-solving clues can often be found in fungi.
In 2002, two 10-year-old British schoolgirls vanished shortly after being seen walking near their homes in Soham early one evening. Their bodies were found 13 days later 17 miles from the village, in the woods near Lakenheath, Suffolk.
Among the forensic specialists called in by police was Patricia Wiltshire, one of the UK’s foremost experts in ecology, botany, and mycology. Wiltshire examined the foliage around the ditch where the bodies had been concealed. Although the growth appeared untouched, she noticed an area where stinging nettles had sprouted new sideshoots. Since sideshoots grow only when the nettle has been trampled or damaged, this indicated the point where the bodies had likely entered the ditch. Plus, from the rate of growth of the shoots,Wiltshire established that the nettles had been broken 13 days earlier, providing the police with an indication of when the crime occurred.
Mycology, or the study of fungi, comes in here. Wiltshire then analyzed soil samples taken from the suspect’s vehicle and from the crime scene. In both samples she found spores of a fungi species known to be common on dead nettles, thus providing a link between the suspect and the location where the bodies were found.
The Lakenheath murders provide a clue to the forensic potential found in fungi. Recent research has shown how forensic mycology can aid investigators by connecting a victim and suspect, determining a location, helping define cause of death, deducing interval since death, and discovering whether a body has been moved. The presence of mushroom genuses Amanita and Psilocybe can indicate the involvement of hallucinogenic drugs.
“If fungi could be shown to grow predictably for a given environment as insects are, it could be useful for determining the post-mortem interval,” said Kelly Elkins, director of the Forensic Science Department at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Entomology has long been employed to discover post-mortem interval, much of it based on research carried out at the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee’s famed Forensic Anthropology Center. In order to establish mycology as a forensic tool, systematic experimental testing of specific fungi under specific conditions need to be carried out to predict outcomes. No one appears to be doing this, however.
“No one here is doing anything [with forensic mycology] and we do not know anyone who is,” said Richard Jantz, the Center’s director. Jantz did not dismiss the forensic potential of mycology. “We would welcome the research,” he said.
Time-since-death research seems a good place to start. Fungi found growing on or in corpses are not the same species that colonize living tissue, yet information on what role particular fungal species play in the decomposition of human remains is almost nonexistent.