Forensic Acarology: Definition & Terms

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia is an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting. She also has a BSChE.

Forensic acarology is the study of the activity of mites on a dead body for the purpose of solving a crime. This lesson is about forensic acarology, its definition, and the relevant terms that are used with it.

How Long Has the Body Been Here?

''Detective Dawson, this is Officer Wright. We just received a call from a jogger in Stony Creek Metropark who discovered a body in the woods near the lake. My partner and I have just arrived at the scene.''

''Officer, please state your exact position.''

''We're near the east picnic area, just off 26 Mile Road. You better send a good forensic team with gowns and masks. I think this body's been here awhile.''

''Well, Officer, the body is outside and has been in the woods. I'm going to send some forensic entomologists. But undoubtedly, there are mites out there, probably only certain kinds. I'm also sending Bill Riley, he's a forensic acarologist. Those bugs will tell him how old that body is and where it came from. Secure the area. Dawson out.''

Microscopic image of a mite
Image of mite

What Is Forensic Acarology?

Forensic entomology is the study of insect activity on a corpse with the goal of finding information about its age, where it was located at time of death, and any other pertinent information that could lead to solving a crime. Forensic acarology is part of forensic entomology but, more specifically, is the study of mites on a dead body. You will probably ask, why on earth would anyone want to study that? Don't worry, it's a good question. But there is an answer. Mites are virtually everywhere, and there are many different kinds, but only certain kinds of mites live in certain places. Mites will be found on almost any dead body as it goes through the process of decay and decomposition, and they can give a good forensic investigator a lot of useful information.

Determining the Post-Mortem Interval

The post-mortem interval, or PMI, is the interval of time between death itself and the discovery of the corpse. An analysis of the mites that are present on the corpse can be used to determine this interval. When somebody dies, he's never alone for long. Right away, within the hour, he's got company in the form of blow flies. These flies lay eggs, and the larvae, or maggots, then aid in decomposing the body. By collecting the larvae on the corpse, investigators can determine which ones are the oldest of the group. This then tells them the approximate time when the flies first laid their eggs. From this, the PMI can be determined. This information is accurate for any corpse up to about a month old.

But the blow flies aren't the only ones coming to dinner. They are quickly followed by other insects, like mites. The different types of insects come marching along according to the actual stage of decomposition that the body has reached. Investigators can tell how old a body is by the kind of insects that have made their home on it as it decays. Although this may all sound awful at first, the amazing symphony of organization that can be seen as various insects play their role in decomposing a corpse is truly a wonder of nature and a forensic blessing.

Stages of Decomposition

Studies have been done in the rainforest on the decay of a human body. These studies, conducted by Tullis and Goff and published in the May 1987 issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology, show that if we consider a corpse's general appearance, its internal temperature, and the kinds of insects that dwell on it, the process of decomposition can be broken down into five phases. These are:

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