Understanding the Differences in Human & Animal Hairs

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  • 0:00 A Murder Mystery
  • 0:41 Hair Evidence
  • 2:05 Human or Animal Hair?
  • 2:21 Human Hair
  • 3:42 Animal Hair
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

There are distinct differences between human and animal hairs. This lesson will list the characteristics of human versus animal hair and explain how to differentiate one from the other by reviewing unique identifiers of each.

A Murder Mystery

Detective Stone is called in on a murder case that appears to be a real mystery. A woman's body was discovered on the side of the road. There is no identification on or near the body, so the woman's identity remains unknown. Her body is transported to the coroner's office where an autopsy and forensic investigation are completed. The forensics team notifies Detective Stone that several foreign hairs were found on the victim's clothing, and that the team is in the process of determining if the hair is human or came from an animal. Detective Stone wonders, 'Could forensic hair evidence could be the key to solving this case?'

Hair Evidence

In criminal investigations, hair evidence, or hairs discovered at or near the scene of a crime, can be an important clue in solving a case. Whether animal or human, hair has been key in solving important cases. Let's look at two case examples solved by hair.

In late 1977, the body of James Anagnos was found stabbed to death in the bar where he worked. Inside his fist, investigators found several strands of human hair. At the time, the field of forensic science was relatively new, and investigators were unable to match the hair to a key suspect in the case. The crime went unsolved until, in 2010, the preserved hair was sent to a forensic lab for analysis. Advanced forensic testing positively identified that the hair belonged to key suspect Frank Wright. Unfortunately, Wright was never prosecuted, since he passed away in 2002.

In 1998, the body of Elizabeth Ballard was discovered in a remote area of a New Mexico desert. There were relatively few clues available to help solve her murder, with the exception of some hairs that were found on one of the socks she was wearing. After a careful forensic examination, it was determined that the hair belonged to a dog. An exhaustive investigation was launched and the hair was eventually matched to a dog owned by one of the prime suspects in the case, resulting in the conviction of him and an associate.

Human or Animal Hair?

As evidenced in the cases above, both human and animal hair can be strong evidence in criminal cases. But how do forensic examiners distinguish one from the other? There are certain characteristics linked to each that forensic examiners are trained to look for.

Human Hair

According to forensic investigators, both human and animal hair can tell a story. It can tell investigators things like what someone or something ate, whether hair was chemically altered, and what part of the country was most recently visited. Human hair, however, has some unique characteristics. The color and pigmentation of human hair, for example, tends to be even and consistent throughout the entire hair strand.

It would be extremely unusual to find a human hair that is brown at the bottom, turns blonde in the middle, and black towards the root, unless of course it was artificially altered. Instead, an identifying characteristic of humans is the color of their hair, since hair tends to be one color. Some other distinguishing features of human hair include:

  • Long length of hair strands
  • Smooth and thick texture
  • The hair shaft is shaped in the form of a ribbon
  • All hair strands are basically shaped the same

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