What does a Forensic Biologist do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A forensic biologist applies the principles of biology to law enforcement applications. Forensic biologists can work in the lab and in the field with a wide variety of substances and samples, from DNA evidence which needs to be identified to animals which need to be necropsied as part of an investigation. Forensic biologists have degrees in forensic science, or in biology with a concentration in forensics, and they may work for government agencies, private labs, universities, and consulting companies.

A forensic biologist might be called upon to perform an autopsy.
A forensic biologist might be called upon to perform an autopsy.

A number of disciplines within the field of biology can be applied to forensics. A forensic botanist, for example, handles evidence from plants, ranging from samples of plant material found on a victim which could lead investigators to the scene of the crime to tracking tree growth which could show how long a skeleton has been buried in a shallow grave. Forensic botanists work with samples of pollen, flowers, and leaves both in the field and in the lab.

A forensic biologist investigates the victim's hair, teeth and skin, and may even run a DNA analysis.
A forensic biologist investigates the victim's hair, teeth and skin, and may even run a DNA analysis.

Forensic entomologists work with bugs. Forensic entomology is a relatively new field, using information about the life cycles of bugs to gather data about crimes. A forensic biologist who focuses on entomology can help investigators determine the time of death and where a body might have been located. They can also contribute other useful things to the team; for example, insects collected from a body can be screened for toxins to check for signs of toxins which might have been in the body when the insects started feeding.

A forensic biologist isn't just interested in helping to solve crimes against humans. Some specialize in tasks like identifying parts of endangered species, working with law enforcement agencies to put a stop to trading in bones, skin, fur, and feathers from animals which are endangered. Forensic biologists can also investigate suspected crimes such as animal poisonings and animal abuse, collecting evidence from the animal and the crime scene, and they can be involved in the investigation of suspected outbreaks of disease in animal populations which could threaten animal or human health.

Biological evidence such as skin, hair, teeth, and blood samples can be examined by a forensic biologist to gather information about the victim. Like forensic chemists, forensic biologists can conduct DNA analysis. A forensic biologist can also participate in or conduct autopsies for the purpose of gathering information about the manner and time of death of someone who has died, and these forensic professionals can supervise the collection of biological evidence from persons of interest in a crime.

DNA results from an electrophoresis test are often used in forensics.
DNA results from an electrophoresis test are often used in forensics.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

KoiwiGal

I've also heard that occasionally forensic biologists are asked their opinion on jobs that are more the province of paleontologists.

Just because they learn how to tell what a person was like from their bones and from the items around them. The two specialties don't cross over completely, but can be used in combination.

I think a few forensic colleges actually teach some courses to both paleontologists and people who are looking for forensic careers.

irontoenail

This makes me think of Sherlock Holmes, as he often used this kind of research and knowledge when tracking down criminals. Like the type of pollen they tracked into a house, or the grass seeds they had stuck to their shoes.

Of course, modern forensic biology has many many more techniques at its command, including methods of analysis that Mr Holmes could not have used.

But, still it was amazing how much someone could have done back then, with a microscope and a good grasp of logic.

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